My feet refused to enter the tiny, crowded sanctuary. I lingered at the threshold, singing along to the broken-hearted, visionary Friday night liturgy. Like called to like across oceans of time and space, summoning my own broken heart to service and to song, to find comfort and camaraderie in our weekly island in time. I heeded the call and took two steps in, then stopped again, frozen. My spine tingled, my shoulders itched with the brutal, animal fear of being a Jew, in America, after the third antisemitic domestic terrorist shooting in 14 months, just three days before then, this time at a kosher grocery in nearby Jersey City. I couldn’t know that more such violence would lay ahead in the coming weeks in New York City, and in Monsey, but the shadow of that possibility cast a pall over the beginning of that Shabbes. If they came for us, I thought, from this small, single-doored, room there would be no escape.
I had to go inside. I had made it home Friday afternoon bare minutes before candle-lighting, harried and purposeful from a non-stop week of organizing protection and support for New York Jewish communities in the wake of the latest tragedy. Rushing to complete my last bits of cleaning and food prep, I remembered with a laugh that on top of everything else, I had signed up months ago to lead the Ma’ariv service that evening. Another thing! I thought, and then, I’m glad it’s me, because Benny Sauerhaft taught me how to daven with a broken heart. But now as the singing concluded, as our rabbi began his sermon on that ancient template of estrangement and reconciliation, of simmering violence and radical forgiveness, between brothers Esau and Israel, Ma’ariv was bare minutes away and here I was, frozen to the spot like a hare twitching its ears in fear.
I walked back out to the vestibule and picked up a large, yellowing tallis. I swept it around my shoulders, inhaled its musty scent, familiar and safe. I thought of Benny, of blessed memory, leading davening in our crumbling, Hasidic tenement shul in the Lower East Side, well into his 90s, in his raspy tenor, eroded but enduring. Born in Lancut, a shtetl in Galicia, Benny was twice over a survivor: first by leaving, shortly before practically everyone he knew was murdered by the Nazis; and later by staying in the desperately poor, convivial Lower East Side as hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews climbed up into finer city neighborhoods and finally the suburbs, an ascent afforded by their entry to respectable professions, their disavowal of subversive or backwards affiliations. They ensconced themselves in the silent, white cocoon of atomized, private homes, escaping the terror of history, of memory, for the desperate allure of the cheerful, evergreen American future. Their Jewishness they warehoused in the empty, upholstered pews of vast modern synagogues and their Yiddish they unravelled from their own toddlers’ tongues.
Not Benny, who in his heavily accented English, would gravely urge any first-time attendees (whom he desperately needed to return to help make a future minyan): “Don’t be strange.” He was a butcher, up at Fischer Bros & Leslie, on the Upper West Side: ask one of the salt-and-pepper-haired countermen there: they still remember him. His handshake was strong, square, enveloping, his gaze devastated, penetrating, and unwavering.
I drew my tallis over my head, blocking out the mineral fiber ceiling, the shining linoleum floors, seeing instead the rough hardwood planks and peeling mazoles murals of my childhood shul. The tallis’ thin, soft layer of wool offered no protection, but it lent me purpose. It reminded me that I am in service to something greater than the pale, feeble flicker of self-interested survival which urged me to turn, leave and go home, bareheaded, anonymously white, safe and alone in the Christmas-pageanted glow of these December city streets. That rather, by the unasked-for grace of being made a Jew, for which I thank God every morning, my soft skin–so easily pierced by a sudden bullet, or if lucky, destined to last long enough to one day wrinkle, wither, and die–that this vulnerable, transient collection of viscera, blood, and bones that constitutes me, somehow also contains a seed of eternity. I turned my tallis-blanketed gaze upward and asked for the same blessing that had been lavished on Benny: to move with the inexorable strength of one who recognizes the world as it truly is, in its wonder and horror, and so cannot be tempted into apathy or broken by heartbreak, as they walk the road of their purpose.
I turned and walked inside. My community said Kaddish in memory of the dead, on behalf of those shell-shocked mourners whose community had spent the last three days sweeping shattered glass and picking out bullet rounds from potato chip bags. I responded with a final “omeyn.” My eyes closed, my knees bent. Slow and sure, the opening words of Ma’ariv rolled out from me, in the diphthonged Ashkenazi cadences of my youth, summoning my people to blessing. I waited a beat in silence, and then, inexorable as the tides of the sea, the ancient, answering call from the community washed over me, and carried us all away to an island in time.