I never imagined when I wrote a post called “L’Shana Tovah 2005” on my 8-day-old blog last January that so many people would be doing Google searches of those words ten months later during the real Rosh Hashanah and end up finding that entry. Shana Tova means Happy New Year, of course, and I was making a Jewish-themed joke by using that phrase on the secular New Year’s Day. In that post, written on a Saturday morning, I mentioned how I was sitting in a coffee shop on La Brea watching the Chasidic families going by on their way to Shabbat services at their orthodox synagogues. Ironically, I am now sitting at that very same table watching the same Chasidic families returning home from their synagogues after the second day of Rosh Hashanah services.
It is always a wistful feeling when I gaze at the large Jewish families in this neighborhood—a feeling that carries with it a vague sense of cellular memory as if I’m remembering my past life on the Lower East Side of New York at the turn of the century or I’m somehow coded with the memories of my great-grandparents’ lives in our family’s shtetl in Poland.
I’ve been feeling rather down this week and was so happy to attend our synagogue’s Monday night Rosh Hashanah services. It was comforting to listen to our wonderful rabbi’s sermon, to hear our cantor’s soaring voice, and to feel the embrace of a community of people poised to begin the annual reflection and renewal of the High Holy Days. Kendall and I are members of the oldest gay and lesbian synagogue in the country (one that also welcomes its straight members with open arms). I hope that my grandfather and these folks here on La Brea would be evolved enough to recognize the devout Jewishness of those services without getting thrown by the occasional men holding hands with other men as they read from their prayer books or the women wearing yarmulkes and swaying to the sacred tunes with their partners and children. I’m afraid my grandfather weighed in on his feelings towards female rabbis and cantors before he died, but maybe he would have altered his views over time, especially if he’d been able to attend one of the moving services at my shul.
Going to the synagogue with my grandfather when I was young was an entirely different experience, and one that I did not often seek out. I knew that my parents’ lack of observance was a source of pain for my grandfather. He did everything he could to encourage piousness in his family members but his pleas fell on deaf ears. He tried to prepare us for the various holidays, frequently bringing over items such as matzahs and dreidels and Hanukkah candles. But the matzah grew stale, the dreidels remained unspun, and the Hanukkah candles found their way onto family birthday cakes. My grandfather sent us Jewish-themed books, Bibles for children, Hebrew toys and games—all ignored in favor of Dr. Seuss, the Hardy Boys, and Monopoly. We did gather every Friday night at my grandparents’ apartment for a Shabbat meal, but when my grandfather sang the prayers he had to struggle to be heard over the din of laughter and the secular gossip that consumed the group. I felt bad for my grandfather’s obvious disappointment and I occasionally took it upon myself to soften the blow by volunteering to sleep over on Friday night and accompanying him to his synagogue the following morning for the Sabbath services.
As we walked down Chicago's Lake Shore Drive, I nearly had to run to keep up with my grandfather’s brisk pace. Observant Jews cannot drive on the Sabbath so we had to walk the mile and a half to Anshe Shalom, my grandfather’s orthodox synagogue, and he hurried along in excited anticipation. Although we didn’t converse much on our way to the synagogue, I could see from his smile and the spring in his step that my grandfather was happy I was at his side, relieved that at least some element of the religious life he began in Poland at the feet of his revered Chasidic father would be passed to a future generation. I was glad that my grandfather was pleased, but fearful that I would be bored out of my mind during the long services. As I rushed to keep pace with my grandfather, I worked to psyche myself up for the religious event. I tried to view my experiences in my grandfather’s world with the detached zeal of an anthropologist. I knew my visits to this foreign land were temporary and I sought to blend in with the natives for only as long as it took to study their strange and mysterious ways.
As we approached Anshe Shalom, my grandfather worked his way through the gathering crowd like a head of state, shaking hands and offering greetings to the congregants. He was treated like some kind of celebrity. “Good Shabbos, Mr. Karoll,” “Nice to see you, Mr. Karoll,” they shouted in rapid succession. I was not acknowledged in these greetings, my identity neatly subsumed into my grandfather’s patriarchal mantle. “Good Shabbos, Mr. Zigelman. Good Shabbos, Mr. Marowitz,” my grandfather replied, never slowing down in his winding path to the front door of the synagogue. He preferred not to socialize before the service. He was already focused on his prayers, gearing up for his connection with God.
Few women milled among the members of the congregation. I noticed Gloria Shutterzeiss, who we used to call Gloria “Shut Your Eyes” because she was so unbelievably homely. Gloria now came to the synagogue every Saturday to honor the memory of her husband, Manny, who died on the operating table the year before. Gloria blamed herself for her husband’s death because she had insisted he go to the Catholic St. Joseph’s Hospital instead of the Jewish Mt. Sinai. A group of ultra-orthodox women in their mid-60s clustered on the steps of the synagogue. Abrasive Mrs. Zimmerman with eyeglasses thicker than bulletproof glass, the timid and never-married Miss Perlsky, and Mrs. Abramowitz, who had a black mole on her nose the size of a quarter. These women wore wigs called shaitels whenever they were out in public and their unflattering dresses looked like they could have come straight out of the 1912 Sears Catalogue. A stunning exception to the dowdy female contingent was the glamorous Dina Halperin, once the Grande Dame of the Yiddish Theatre, now the wife of Danny Newman, a friend of my grandfather’s, who was the manager of Chicago’s renowned Lyric Opera. Dina strode through the throng like a queen, her mink hat wrapped around her stylish coiffure, make-up perfectly applied, her Chanel suit impeccably tailored. I was glad to see Dina in the crowd. She reminded me of an aging movie star and it was fun to watch her interact with the other women who seemed like lowly film extras in her dazzling presence. I didn’t even mind when, after greeting my grandfather, Dina pinched my cheeks in a painful, vice-like grip. “Such a shayne punim on this boychik!” she exclaimed. “Such a handsome face on his boy!” Her red razor-sharp fingernails grazed my cheeks, making me suck them in to avoid drawing blood.
Filing into the lobby of the synagogue, my grandfather removed his large prayer shawl called a tallis from its embroidered pouch and kissed both ends of the shawl before placing it around his head and shoulders. I reached in a communal bin for a yarmulke. It was a source of added shame for my grandfather that I had to wear one of the plain black yarmulkes provided by the synagogue. Most religious boys wore their own yarmulkes, knitted by their doting mothers with their Hebrew names and landscapes from the Holy Land expertly stitched into the small circles. Since my mother did not know from knitting yarmulkes, I plopped the machine-made covering onto my head and followed my grandfather into the sanctuary.
The women in attendance made their way to the left side of the room while the men took their places on the right. In an orthodox synagogue, the separation of the sexes is strictly observed. In most orthodox synagogues, the women’s section was located in a high balcony, separated by a lattice-work of curtains that the female congregants had to peek through to get a glimpse of the proceedings. In this regard, Anshe Shalom adopted a rare liberal stance—its women’s section was “separate but equal” and the women enjoyed perfect sight lines of the main platform called the bimah. I spotted Dina Halperin taking a seat in between Manya Shlimowitz, a fragile-looking crone dressed in black who seemed older than God, and tiny Mrs. Geisler, a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania whose oldest son Eddie had shocked the community by marrying a Mormon. I looked over to the men’s section and saw the Feingold family squeezing their way down a narrow row—grandfather, father, and four teenaged sons, each one more obese than the last. The Feingolds ran the deli down the street from the synagogue and the distinct smell of salami and herring wafted off their clothes and oiled hands.
My grandfather and I walked over to the center of the room. This smaller section, directly in front of the bimah, was reserved for the synagogue’s VIPs and special guests. I wasn’t sure what afforded my grandfather such an honor. Was it his standing in the community? His pious family background? His generous contributions to the synagogue? I felt quite smug as I took my reserved second-row seat and gazed at the drones scrambling for places in the regular sections. But my special status came with a price. Seated all around me were the elders of the congregation, an imposing group of men ranging from a federal judge to a former district attorney to the retired synagogue presidents. I gazed in envy at the men and women in “coach class” who seemed to be enjoying themselves as they greeted each other and chatted openly, free from the scrutiny of the humorless Old Guard. My grandfather pushed a prayer book into my hands and opened it to the correct section. He fidgeted quickly with the pages, embarrassed that his friends seated around us might catch on that I couldn’t follow the prayers on my own.
Blending in with the religious crowd during the service was a constant challenge. Following the sequence of events was an exercise in discipline and conformity. Stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down. Turn the page, rock back and forth in prayer, beat a closed fist against my chest, mumble softly, look up to heaven with sincerity, bow my head in solemn reflection. These were all stage directions that I could master if I paid close attention to those around me. I was a fraud but I hoped that my performance was good enough to avoid detection.
Leading the services was Cantor Wilhelm Silber, who faced east with the rest of the congregation and ritualistically bellowed the plaintive wails of the ancient melodies. Cantor Silber was a Chicago legend. A Jewish Pavarotti, his voice was strong and pure, matched in size only by his ego. I could appreciate the quality of his voice but I had a hard time following along in the prayer book. I had learned to read Hebrew letters but I had no idea what I was reading and I certainly could not follow the meaning behind any of the formal prayers. Time seemed to stand still as the prayers continued on and on. I had an urge to look at my watch but I knew that would upset my grandfather, especially so early in the service.
Cantor Silber turned from his podium and faced the crowd. How strange that I never noticed just how much he looked like Mario Lanza, the MGM singing star of the 1950s. His Hebrew melody took a jump to a livelier beat as a beautiful soprano voice coming from the woman’s section joined his deep baritone in harmonious song. I craned my neck for a better view, only to discover Manya Shlimowitz, now the spitting image of Kathryn Grayson, doffing her drab clothes to reveal a violet chiffon gown that looked like something out of Old Vienna. The two singers approached each other slowly as Manya made her way to the platform. As they embraced, the monochromatic blues and grays of the synagogue peeled away to reveal the brilliant palette of a Technicolor fantasy. Religious tableaux depicting scenes from the Old Testament dropped down from the walls and the figures in the stained glass windows came to life as a bevy of Busby Berkeley girls assumed the biblical postures. With fake smoke pouring in from the men’s and women’s sections, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland burst forth from the velvet-robed doors of the ark, holding the Torah scrolls as if they were bagpipes and tap dancing up a storm. Tommy Dorsey and his band rose up from the ground in front of Cantor Silber’s platform and launched into a boogie woogie version of the holy prayers. The rhinestone Jewish stars adorning Mickey’s and Judy’s costumes sparkled in the glare of the multi-colored stage lights and as the couple sang their hearts out, a giant, waving Israeli flag was superimposed in front of their beaming faces. My grandfather impatiently changed the page on my prayer book just as the silk and satin walls of the glittering set turned back into the drab Anshe Shalom interior.
Mr. Zigelman came over and whispered something into my grandfather’s ear. I panicked. Was I going to be thrown out of the synagogue? Did the congregants figure out that I was just going through the motions and didn’t merit my place in the VIP section? I was relieved to discover that my grandfather was simply being asked to go up and open the ark during the next portion of the service. Each week a different member of the congregation received this honor. My grandfather approached the bimah, pulled aside the brocade curtains, and opened the blond wood sliding doors of the holy ark, revealing three impressive Torahs. Torahs were large scrolls handscribed on parchment that contained the beautifully calligraphed contents of the Holy Scriptures. The scrolls were wrapped around wooden poles and covered with velvet that was embroidered with memorials for the families who donated the costly relics. “In cherished memory of Avrum and Bayla Seidman.” “In loving tribute to our grandmother and mother, Sylvia Greenbaum, 1871-1963.” Atop the wooden poles were elaborate silver and gold crowns, shimmering and clinking with holy ornaments like a charm bracelet.
Two men lifted one of the Torahs and placed it in my grandfather’s arms. Torahs are considered so sacred that whenever they are removed from their elegant resting place, the congregation must rise and remain standing. Each week one of the Torahs was carried throughout the sanctuary by a member of the synagogue. I remembered hearing once from Brookie Silber, the cantor’s daughter, that if you accidentally dropped one of the heavy scrolls during this foray, it was such a sin that you had to fast for forty days and forty nights.
As my grandfather stepped off the bimah, I stood paralyzed in fear that one slip would mean his certain death. He moved through the men’s section, pausing just long enough for the congregants to gather near the aisle of each row and touch their prayer fringes to the holy relic. When my grandfather reached the Feingolds, their collective mountain of flesh created such a road hazard that my grandfather lost control of the Torah and it flew into the air. At once a shaft of red light blazed into the room from a hole in the ceiling as hundreds of tiny golden calves rained onto the crowd. A satanic laugh erupted from the possessed form of Cantor Silber and Mrs. Shutterzeiss leapt across the barrier of the woman’s section and morphed into the beautiful but evil Philistine temptress, Delilah. Bearing a remarkable resemblance to Hedy LaMarr, Mrs. Shutterzeiss waved her golden scissors in the air and shimmied her way across the platform. She seductively held out her arms to the still cackling Cantor Silber. Bolts of lightning and a deafening thunder filled the room as Mrs. Shutterzeiss grabbed the beard of the cantor and snipped away at the unruly locks. The Torah that my grandfather had held crashed to the floor with a hellish clatter and instantly disappeared into a steaming vortex of molten slime. My grandfather rose into the air through the red beam as a phalanx of Egyptian pharaohs appeared in the stained glass windows. Suddenly, the disembodied face of a white-haired holy man appeared across the ark and in a commanding voice shouted, “Let My People Go!” I jumped with a start and suddenly realized that my grandfather had returned to his seat next to mine. He whispered that the rabbi’s sermon was about to begin.
Rabbi Dietcher was the spiritual leader of Anshe Shalom. He was in his late 40s, a relatively young age for an orthodox rabbi, and had the bushy facial hair and heavy features of the anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews from World War II. Now Rabbi Dietcher rose from his chair and began his weekly talk. At least it’s in English, I thought to myself, and I focused my attention on the rabbi. But for me the sermon contained nothing remotely inspirational. Rabbi Dietcher used the pulpit to persuade the wealthy crowd to buy Israeli savings bonds, support their synagogue, and give generously to the Jewish United Fund. I was turned off by his calls for money and glanced over at poor Mrs. Geisler when the rabbi started droning on about the “tragedy” of intermarriage.” Rabbi Dietcher then went on an extended riff about the Holocaust. That week was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the rabbi spoke at length about the lessons of that time period for all American Jews.
Rabbi Dietcher’s sermon was interrupted by a slight rumbling heard in the distance. The noise grew and grew until an unruly rabble could be heard just beyond the walls of the sanctuary. Members of the congregation started shifting nervously in their seats. Just as Rabbi Dietcher raised his hands to calm the crowd, a rock wrapped in a burning rag smashed through a stained glass image of Moses on Mt. Sinai, hit the rabbi on the head, and fell onto the curtains of the ark, immediately setting them ablaze. As people turned to run out of the synagogue, they were stopped by an army of SS storm troopers wearing knee-high black leather boots and swinging wooden clubs around their blond heads. I turned to see Dina Halperin courageously spitting in the face of the chief SS officer as his foaming German shepherd nipped at her ankle. Mr. Zigelman started beating a Nazi soldier with a prayer book and the elder Mr. Feingold used his prayer shawl to keep an unruly Hitler youth in a head lock. The entire synagogue was now in flames but Cantor Silber remained on the platform and calmly sang in prayer. His booming melancholic voice was at once a cry for God’s attention and a defiant assertion of pride and solidarity.
As the giant swastika on the bimah dissolved back into a star of David, I realized that at long last the morning services were coming to an end. Rabbi Dietcher wished us all a Good Sabbath and Cantor Silber launched into the closing prayer. I had managed to get through the service without major incident. I had set the tone for my future religious observance on a lie, albeit one that came from a sincere desire to please my grandfather. I suspected my grandfather knew full well the extent of my deception, but he never called me on it and he seemed to accept my rote participation in the theatricals as better than no participation at all. Perhaps he felt that the exposure to his world would plant seeds that I would later be able to nurture into true understanding of the benefits he derived from religious life. I accompanied my grandfather to his synagogue many times after that morning and indeed, as I grew up and began to explore my connection to Judaism, I often reflected on my experience at Anshe Shalom. I only wish my grandfather were alive now to see me going to the synagogue by my own choice. And even though the GLBT crowd at my new synagogue would be far more attuned to my MGM fantasies than the old-timers at my grandfather’s shul, I no longer feel any need to daydream the hours away to get through the services.
L'shana tovah to all.