Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

27 Elul 5759 - September 8, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Home and Family
Of Synagogues and Shtiebels...
by Channi Katz, England

Having moved twice half way round the world, and belonging, for various practical and tactical reasons, to several shuls in the community where we now reside, I cannot help feeling very much like the wandering Jew when I take my place in the ladies gallery on the High Holidays. Many people around me have davened in this house of worship from their first, goodie-bag- clutching appearance, many years ago, up to this very day, and cannot even fathom a different nusach or alternative way of davening. But as for me, I have been to so many places, seen so many varying scenarios, that at times it tends to get a bit confusing. Is it going to be Keser or Nakdishoch for Kedusho today? Should I be ready to kneel down by oleinu or ostensibly refrain from doing so and leave it only to the men this time?

Not that I resent having been exposed to so many different facets of the luminous prism of which Judaism is composed. Each holy scene, each place, has in its own way left an indelible mark on my personality. Enriched by the many experiences, I try to weave all the different themes together as my praying echoes with sounds and tunes from days gone by.

It is hard to suppress a smile, despite the seriousness of the hour, as my machzor balances precariously on the vestiges of a gas-stove in the crowded little shteibel, in reality a converted living room cum kitchen. And my thoughts float back to the tall, magnificent edifice of a Synagogue where my mother painstakingly tried to inculcate in a restless little girl the beauty of the tefilos. What a wondrous place that shul was, with its ornate marble steps leading up to the imposing oron kodesh, which was always adorned, according to the season of the year, with one of the elaborate curtains from the shul's collection. We children knew each poroches as if they were all familiar old friends, and anticipated each change with wonderful excitement. The white silky one, that beheld the splendor of the Yomim Noroim, would disappear after Yom Kippur to be replaced by the deep blue velvet drape that accompanied us right through the winter. Came spring time and in preparation of Pesach, the shul basked in the brightness of dazzling red brocade, in turn to make way for a reproduction of the Kosel when Tisha B'Av approached.

It was a good thing we children were too engrossed in the decorum to notice the emptiness of the shul. Old timers would fondly reminisce how it had once been so packed with worshippers that if one came a few minutes late on a Friday night, they had to stand for the entire service. But by courtesty of Hitler y'sh and his stooges, there was now plenty of space, and had the mispallelim not instinctively chosen to huddle together in a few corners of the shul, each could have had a whole row of pews to himself. Only on the High Holidays did the place fill up a little more, somewhat diminishing the echo of the chazzan's voice, and the presence of those Yidden who only made an appearance on these Days of Awe, held the answer to the tangible hollowness of all year round.

It was strange how these temporary residents would soon lose their diffidence, and blend in naturally with the surroundings. Although a big gap separated us regulars from the sporadic visitors, they unmistakably belonged, and even added mysterious dimension to the occasion which I could not define as a child. Somehow they personified dos pintele Yid, an affirmation of the eternity of Am Yisroel.

The center stage of the shul was occupied by the venerable Cantor, clad in traditional black velvet robe and matching beret, and appointed to his honorable position by virtue of his resounding tenor and all around ability to conduct the services. He would lead us on and together, we would negotiate the landmarks of those holy days, sometimes solemn, sometimes joyous, but always with a tinge of yearning. Our fascination with the sholiach tzibur would reach a crescendo when he earnestly intoned the opening notes of Oleinu leshabeiach on Rosh Hashona. For the elderly gentleman, wearing his full length robe, it was no mean feat to kneel down and then straighten himself again whilst keeping his feet together all the time. When he would accomplish his mission, with some assistance of the very officially acting shammosh, we would all utter a collective sigh of relief mixed with pride.

Yet, despite all the pomp and officiousness, this same chazzon would cry real, hot tears that moved his congregants along with him to newfound depths in their prayers. Typical for children, we were embarrassed and confused by the tears of an adult, so rare a phenomenon in our Western society. But somehow, those tears blended in with the empty Synagogue, with the occasional visitors, with the renowned heroism of the selfsame chazzon during the Holocaust, and with the theme of repentance that reverberated through the prayers.

The ceremoniousness of those early shul experiences stands in almost ridiculous contrast with many of the settings I was to encounter later on in life, yet at the time it seemed as if the formality enhanced the davening, inculcating awareness of Hashem's Kingship. Nobody would have dreamt of giving their children anything to eat in such an atmosphere, let alone to make the congregation put up with the sounds and smells of edible consumption one has to endure nowadays as a matter of routine. It was an unspoken rule that only children who could conform with the dignity of the surroundings were brought to shul, and this, in turn, created an ambiance which prompted us youngsters to behave.

I remember fingering and counting the pages of the machzor impatiently, silently wondering how long the service would still take. And my mother, reading my thoughts, would softly whisper with a wistful expression, "Wait till you get to my age, then you'll find that Yom Kippur goes by all too fast." It was not really an admoniiton, yet the unintentional reproach in those words brought home the strange message that adults actually enjoyed praying!

Many years have passed since I last stood in that hollow, hallowed house of worship. The congregation, a handful of the old-timers, has moved into far smaller quarters, the old building more or less fittingly been transformed into a Holocasut museum. When I went to learn in seminary in Eretz Yisroel, it was a uplifting, unique experience to join one of the large Litvishe Yeshivos, and the intensity and length of the tefilos left a profound impression. Subsequently, through one of life's unexpected surprises, I was privileged to witness and join the moving scene of a highly esteed Admor and his chassidim on the holiest of days. Then, settling down in England as a young, housebound mother, I would make do with whatever minyan happened to be in the vicinity, be it old-style English or an impromptu shteibel, finally settling down with a sincere congregation with a distinct Hungarian flavor. Perhaps it was the experience of going to shul in those busy years that taught me to forego comparisons, but rather appreciate the value of a place- of- prayer per se.

Catching just one small, precious part of davening in between two nursing sessions, or by the grace of a painstakingly worked out baby-sitting schedule with neighbors, the immense impact of the holiness of the beis haknesses would hit me immediately on entrance. I do not need to evaluate any more which place suits me best. After visiting so many different places and then finally making a `comeback' to shul after numerous years of a home-made davening, it does not seem to be an issue any more. Each place might have its own distinct character and flavor, but so long as the atmosphere is genuine, I can feel at home anywhere.

Perhaps it is because as an adult, I actually enjoy davening after all!


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