Tag Archives: Pinyon ha ben

For My Grandpa, Being a Kohan Was His Joy and Duty

27 Jun
Inside Shul in Kauneonga Lake

My Cousin took this photo from the women’s balcony, at least 30 years ago. My Grandfather is standing on the right, walking away from the bima.

My maternal Grandpa was a Kohan, a descendant of the Priests of Israel.  Even today, Kohanim have roles and duties that are part of their lives.  Grandpa was born in Galicia, an area of Austria/Poland that often changed borders.  He came to the USA in 1920.  And eventually owned his own kosher bakery in New Jersey, as well as a small bungalow colony in the Catskills.  But he always kept the rules of the Kohanim.

Grandpa often served as the Kohan during the Pidyon ha Ben ceremony.  This ceremony is also called the redemption of the first born.  In biblical times the first-born child, if it is a son, of an Israelite family had to be given to the Kohanim.   The family needs to present five silver coins to a representative of the Kohanim.  My grandfather was often asked to serve as this representative.   He would lead the ceremony and take the silver coins, which he kept until the boy was bar mitzvah, when he would return the coins as part of the child’s bar mitzvah gift.

I remember as a child being at a Pidyon ha Ben service.  I was so intrigued by the ceremony.  But I think more by the money.  I asked what Grandpa did with all the silver coins.  My Grandma told me that Grandpa did not use that money.  He saved it in a special place to return to the boy when he was older.

I wonder how they could keep track of that money.  But then my grandparents owned a kosher bakery, and my grandmother saved every silver coin that came into the store.  When she died, we found 900 silver coins, from dimes to silver dollars.  They were divided up so that everyone one of their descendants had some.  I still have mine.

Grandpa rarely went to a cemetery.   In fact, I don’t remember him ever going to a cemetery. He always paid shiva calls, but not the funeral.  Kohanim do not go near the dead. He did not go into a service until my grandmother died.   Kohanim do not go near the dead.  In fact, some Jewish funeral homes are built with two foundations, so that Kohanim can stay in the outer area during a funeral. There but not in the same structure.  I can still see my Grandpa during my Grandma’s funeral, even though it was almost 40 years ago.

Grandpa went to services on Shabbat.  He made so many Kohan aliyot at Shabbat services.  When they moved to the Catskills full time.  He was often the only Kohan at shul.  It became his responsibility to go every week and be the Kohan.  He took this honor seriously.

When he was in his later years, over 80, he would drive partway to shul and then walk the distance that he could walk.  Although he was brought up not driving on Shabbat or working, in the 1980s at his shul in Kauneonga Lake, people drove to services, even parking on the grounds of the shul, Congregation Temple Beth El. But not Grandpa.  He would park by Sylvia’s clothing store, up the hill from the main part of Kauneonga Lake and easier for him to walk.  I once asked him why he didn’t just park at the shul.   His response, “I walk as far as I can, because I can do that for Shabbat.”

On the high holidays he was often the only Kohan at the Kauneonga Lake shul.  On the high holidays he would sit in the men’s section with his tallit wrapped over his head covering his eyes.  When I was little my favorite time was sitting with him in shul with his tallit covering me as well.  He kept his hands over his eyes under the tallit as he davened.  His emotions during the high holidays was overwhelming.  My sister said it was her strongest memory, how upset and emotional he would get them, as Grandpa usually had a great sense of joy.  But then as an adult she realized that the pain of the Shoah came to him then.  He was the only one left of his family.  All perished in Europe, while he was already in the USA.

Sometimes he was the only Kohan at shul to perform the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessings.  Grandpa had a beautiful singing voice.  He often sang to us in Yiddish. During the Priestly Blessings, he sang for everyone and blessing the entire congregation.  At times there were other Kohanim present, especially if the holidays were early in September.  Then Grandpa would be joined by others on the bima.

At some point, another Kohan moved to the Kauneonga Lake area and also went to services.  Grandpa was thrilled.  Sometimes he would not go to services on Shabbat.  He would say, “Let the other guy have a chance.”

It was this statement that brought this story to my mind last weekend..  My husband is a Levi.  He goes to minyan every Wednesday, but to Shabat services about once a month. He almost always gets Levi.  Our congregation only has three Levis who come weekly.  They, like my grandfather, are happy when another guy comes. This week the Gabbi came and said, “Do you want Levi?” “Sure,” was my husband’s response.  “Good because the others say they don’t want it today, you should take it.”  During this short conversation, in my mind’s eye, I could see my Grandpa’s smiling and laughing.

Grandpa took his role as a Kohan with joy and fulfilled his duty.  I know he would be happy seeing my husband fulfilling his duty as well.

 

 

 

https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1008437/jewish/Birkat-Kohanim-Melody.htm