by Tessa Dratt
Our Orthodox shul (synagogue) in Manhattan on Lexington and 95th was a modest structure that stood tightly crammed between other low rise buildings on the East side of the street. It had few distinguishing features other than the Star of David carved into the stone above its brick facade and the two small stained-glass windows badly in need of cleaning.
Every Shabbat and holiday, men and women filed into the vestibule of the shul where they separated according to tradition, males remaining on the main floor while females ascended to the balcony above. As a small girl, maybe four or five, I mostly sat with my father and older brother. I played beek-a-boo games with the little boys in the row behind us, darting in and out from within the folds of my father's enormous tallis (prayer shawl). I cheerfully accepted candies from the cantor and suffered in silence as my cheeks were pinched by more than one well-meaning grandfather.
The tallis was a source of endless fascination. It smelled vaguely barn-like woven out of wool and folded into a square to be kept, when not in use, in a dark blue velvet pouch with an embossed Star of David on the front. A long fringe hung off each side, the perfect distraction for a child of counting age, though there was far more fringe than I had numbers. The wool of the tallis was thick, but if I held a section of it over my eyes, I could still see the sparkles of light that filtered into the dim shul through the high corner windows of colored glass.
There was so much to do under that tallis! My father davened, he swayed back and forth. I davened too, although I suspect that given my child's energy, it was more like a free-form two-step than a prayer. When we weren't swaying, we sang, or I played with the wedding band on my father's finger, or counted the hairs that sprouted from under his watch band. He had a special "shabbat watch", thin as a golden dime, as he had a "shabbat suit" and "shabbat shoes". He was clean and brushed, polished and buffed and smelled of citrus cologne. It was good to stand next to him under his vast black and white tent.
By seven or eight, tradition prevailed, and I was sent to sit upstairs with my mother which was an entirely different experience. She came to shul as a concession to my father. No religious fervor here, but rather an agreement my parents had arrived at long before my brother and I were born: My father would direct our religious education, my mother would let him.
So we sat together in the balcony between devout Mrs. Klutznik on our left and pudgy Lena Cohen on the right and I breathed in my mother's spicy perfume. I tried to interest her in the service. She smiled and nodded and stared off into space. I slipped on her rings and wrapped myself in her scarves. I told her what pages to turn to. I whispered my childish secrets in her ear. But I knew my mother, and in shul, she was bored - abysmally, wiltingly, invariably bored.
As I got older, my mother and I had a better time especially during the Torah reading when, it seemed, no one really paid much attention, and the shul was abuzz with low frequency noise. It was like an unofficial "time out". My mother and I gossiped about the alarming color of Mrs. Rosenthal's hair, or the dreadful shredded rose on Ada Levy's hat. We speculated as to why Hilda Frumkin persisted in wearing suits that were at least one size too small.
By age fourteen, given years of Saturday mornings spent in silent scrutiny of the women around me, I developed an unerring gift for the early detection of pregnancy. Within two months of conception, I could spot the subtle spread in Nina Bench's hips or the way Mava Fried's skin changed tone. This aptitude of mine finally got my mother's attention and she began to show an occasional glimmer of interest in the members of the Sisterhood.
But while my father davened and my mother sat largely vacant and motionless next to me, I drank in the sweet predictability of the service. I reveled in the continuity of practice from one week to the next. I sang the songs. I fantasized. I even prayed. And I remember everything.
I remember the high polish of the mahogany railing and benches, the slightly mildewed odor of the prayer books and how the print came off on our fingers if the High Holidays fell when the weather was still hot and humid in New York. I remember the shabby maroon carpeting that must once have been plush but appeared beaten and thread-bare after long years of service.
I remember the drone of the Rabbi's speeches peppered with grammatical errors because he came to this country late in life well after he had married my father to my mother one June morning in Paris in 1930. I always viewed the Rabbi from the same peculiar angle, from above and to the left. I became an expert on his face from that vantage point. His neatly cropped beard moved up and down as he prayed. His yarmulka (skullcap) was square instead of round like everyone else's and he wore a morning coat under his tallis.
Every now and then before his sermon, the Rabbi looked up at me and caught my eye. He opened his huge black Tanach, that held between its covers not only the substance of the entire old testament but also the neatly typed sheets of his sermon for the day. In a heavy-handed pantomime, using his thumb and index finger, the Rabbi counted out the pages - five, six, seven. Then he looked up at me, winked and smiled. Seven pages - twenty minutes at the outside I calculated. I relished this weekly covert communication. It gave me a unique sense of privilege.
After services, the Rabbi came towards me outside the shul and hugged me hard enough to take my breath away. He smelled of cigars and cream soda, although his voice was deep with drama and, I liked to imagine, resonated with all the struggles of the old testament.
With age came the awareness that outside of the safety of the shul, our family was a swirling, churning stew of conflicted personalities that constantly threatened to boil over. My father, brilliant and urbane, was impossibly demanding, cosmically angry. He was a walking time bomb that anything might detonate, and he carried with him wherever he went, a bottomless cup of self-pity. My mother's serene, stand-offish sophistication didn't hide the fact that she suffered from severe depression, spending a great deal of her time on her bed. And by the age of twelve, after years of pretending not to notice that he regularly talked to himself and refused to participate in any group activity or make any friends, it became undeniably clear to my parents that something was seriously wrong with my brother. By fifteen, he was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia. This marked the final shattering of our family integrity and sent us into a tailspin from which none of us ever fully recovered.
Only shul was blessed and peaceful. Only there, did everyone and every thing appear normal, ordered and explainable. On Shabbat, my father laid down his sword and declared himself at peace with the world. Like it or not, my mother slipped into her graceful public demeanor, suede gloves on her hands, felt beret set at a precarious angle on her thick head of red hair. Even my brother, dressed in a suit and tie, entered a state of remote control regulated by the rhythm of prayer. And I sang, davened (prayed) and cast hooded glances at the boys below. I entered another world, a smaller, predictable universe that extended from the Bimah at one end of the shul, the ark that housed the Torah scrolls in their white silk robes and silver ornaments, to the vestibule at the other end where the prayer books, yarmulkas and tallesim were stored and where a staircase fed up a flight to the women's balcony.
The shul was central to my life, the reference point by which I charted my growth from toddler to teen, from woman to wife, a place where week in week out, year after year, the same songs would be sung, the same prayers uttered, the same traditions carried forward.
I was in New York last week. On the way into Manhattan from the airport, the taxi driver took Lexington Avenue to get to my midtown destination. Traffic stalled at 95th Street in front of the shul. I stared out the window of the cab at the same unassuming facade and the same slightly dirty windows set in brick a few shades darker but otherwise unchanged even thirty-some-odd years later. I thought of asking the cabbie to pull over and let me out but then the traffic cleared and the cab moved on. It didn't matter. Just to see the building again was a comfort in the face of the indifferent passage of time and a daunting world that seems to spin ever faster on its axis.
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