Sunday, October 07, 2007

Write Us in the Book of Heat

This post devolves from my usual global (or at least Jewishly global) concerns to what might be considered a personal peeve. Our communal buildings literally chase me away, by virtue (vice?) of being overcooled in summer and underheated in winter. I had a particularly miserable Tishrei holiday season where proper tefilla was next to impossible. I had to leave in the middle of services on the first day of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Shmini Atzeret. Why? The air conditioning was set so high that the temperature hardly ever rose above 70F. No problem for those generously endowed with insulating fat. Big problem for macho athletic types like myself. The cold literally sucked away my body heat to the point where kavana became impossible. Since we are not commanded to suffer on these holidays, except for Yom Kippur and even then hypothermia is not part of the mandated suffering, I picked myself up and left, just as I picked myself up and left my nephew's huppa several years ago when the hall was unbearably cold in mid-July. When I stepped outside into the natural unconditioned summer-like air, I felt as if I had died and gone to heaven. On Rosh Hashana I blew the last 40 shofar sounds for myself at home. Was it necessary to overcool the shul? Doesn't somebody in authority know how to set a thermostat? All the guidebooks tell us to set air conditioning no lower than 78F in order to conserve energy. Adding insult to injury, the shul cries poverty and wastes our time with appeals for money, even as it runs the air conditioner as if electricity was free.

On my way out, I said out loud, "Avinu malkeinu, kotveinu b'sefer hom." Our father, our king, write us in the book of heat. Why the book of heat? A little basic human physiology. Nature and nature's God (to borrow a quote from Thomas Jefferson) endowed the human species with a highly efficient sweating mechanism to rid ourselves of excess heat. This mechanism served us very well running down our dinner on the African savanna, and continued to serve us in physically demanding occupations until one or two generations ago, when manual labor was virtually abolished in our society. Nature gave us virtually nothing to deal with cold. We are not polar bears with a thick coat of fur. Nor are we whales with a thick layer of insulating blubber. All we have to handle cold is clothing and artificial heating, another example of cultural evolution outpacing biological in our species. Add the fact that my body temperature hovers at 96.5F, two degrees lower than it should be, and yours truly has very little wiggle room at the low end. When others are merely uncomfortable (and unnecessarily so), I am unbearably cold. If I could simply disinvent one of our technological marvels, after the atom bomb it would be the air conditioner. I was fired from a ba'al koreh job because I could not stay in the over-air-conditioned building. In the winter I have to wear more clothing than most people in order to function in a shul that is kept at about 68F to conserve fuel.

What with the climate changing, we can expect warm weather to last farther into autumn, just as happened this year. That is good news for thermophiles like myself. I will actually be able to eat more of my meals in the sukka, whereas in years past I often had to retreat indoors because of the cold - mitzta'er patur. However, it also means I will be spending less time in shul - unless. . . . I am old enough to remember a time when air conditioning was a luxury only the wealthy could afford, and few of us were wealthy. We made do with open windows and fans. Remember fans? Those gizmos that blow air around and enhance evaporation of (shhh, dirty five-letter word) sweat? We took off our jackets (or came to shul without them) and exposed more skin surface so sweat can evaporate. We drank a lot, and I don't mean alcohol. Today I cannot find a shul in Brooklyn that is not air conditioned. Can you? I would really like to enjoy being in shul again.

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