Tag Archives: shul

Traditions Survive Across Generations

4 Oct

My grandfather was a Cohen. Born in Poland, he took this role seriously. Cohanim lead off the aliyot at synagogue; they have to be present at a “pinyon ha ben,” the ceremony for the redemption of the first born. They cannot marry a divorced woman. They do not go to the cemetery or funeral except for a very close relative. And for me the most intriguing, they lead the dukhanen on the high holidays

When I was a little girl I loved to go sit with Grandpa in shul. He had a large tallit ( prayer shawl) and would wrap me into it as I sat next to him. Whenever the Shema was said, he would lift his tallit so it covered his head and face. “Why do you do that?” I asked. Most of the other men just kept their tallit on their shoulders.

“When I say the Shema I speak to G-d,” he told me. “When you say the Shema you have to cover your eyes, ” he told me, “and think about the prayer .” To this day whenever I say the Shema I put my right thumb on one eyelid and my forefinger on my other eyelid to keep my eyes closed, just as Grandpa taught me. And I think about the words I am saying. I taught this to my children.

Because Grandpa was a Cohen on special holy days he would perform the priest prayer, the dukhanen, with other Cohanim descendants. They would be dressed in white kittals, robes, over which they wore their tallit. When they entered the sanctuary they stood at the front if the congregation and covered their heads with their tallit.

At this point my Mom told me to look away. “When the Cohanim chant this prayer they speak to G-d and his light comes. If you look once, you will go blind in one eye. If you look twice you will go blind. If you look the third time you will die,” she said.

How can you possibly die if you are already blind? Okay she admitted you cannot die, but still you must turn your face away and not watch. To this day I do turn away. I still cover my eyes. But sometimes I sneak a peek. And I said the same thing to my children.

Many congregations no longer do the dukhanen , but my congregation continues this tradition. At Rosh Hashannah this year, as I watched the Cohanim walk in and prepare for their chant I remembered my grandfather. In my mind I could see him walking to the front of the room.

My father was not a Cohen. As an Israelite, he had no special role, but he loved his Judaism and his congregation. My Dad was president of his synagogue for 11 years. A record I am sure. He worked to pass his love of Judaism to his grandchildren. Before each of my children’s bar/bat mitzvah, my parents came to stay with me. My Dad studied with them each day for the week before the service, listening to them chant Torah, helping. He was so proud as each of his six grandchildren reached this important day.

Grandpa kissing his tallit after touching the Torah.

Grandpa kissing his tallit after touching the Torah.

As the Torah comes through the aisles before being returned to its resting place behind the curtains and the doors, beneath the everlasting light,  I touch it with my siddur.  My Mother taught me to do this, as I watch the men touch it with the fringe of their tallit.  This I also taught to my children.

When I go to shul, I am never alone. Even if my husband is not with me, in my mind I see my grandparents and parents. When I chant the Amidah, standing with my feet together, I gently sway back and forth, Schukling. My children would sway with me when they were little. Sometimes my children would lose my rhythm and sway into me. Now just my husband is with me. And he sways into me sometimes with a lilt in his eye.

My husband is a Levi.  Although he does not participate in the dukanen itself, he is called out before it to help the Cohanim prepare.   Many times, he does not have to do anything, because there are more Levi than Cohanim. But he goes, he says for the exercise.  But I know that it is a tradition that remains.

When we daven together, I feel the bond lasts across the generations.
As I recently stood to say Yahrzeit for my Dad, my son was with me. He now wears my Dad’s tallit. On his head was one of my Dad’s caps. As I stood, he lean my Dad’s hat against my hand. When I sat, he turned and said,” I thought you would want Grandpa near to you.” And I did.

But when I am in shul they are always with me. Their voices swirl among the other voices chanting.

Our Shul in the Catskills

18 Jun
Temple in Kauneonga Lake.

Temple in Kauneonga Lake.

Congregation Temple Beth El in Kauneonga Lake celebrated its 90 anniversary last summer. I only found out because my daughter asked me a question about the shul in the Catskills — the shul that three generations of her family had all attended.

To be honest, I was not sure that it even still held services. I live in Kansas now, and only go up to the Lake once each summer. Even less than I used to. When my parents were alive I would spend 7 to 10 days at our home in Kauneonga Lake with my parents and one or both of my children. But since they passed, at most I have spent a weekend.

So I checked. I went on line, and there it was a website for the congregation! I sent a donation in honor of the anniversary and in memory of my parents. And then I joined the congregation.

It brings back so many memories. The shul was founded in 1923. I think I started going there in the early 1960s. Maybe before. But my memories before then are not very accurate.

We spent every Rosh Hashannah at the shul on the hill in the Catskills. It was an orthodox congregation when I grew up. The women and girls sat upstairs in the balcony, while the men and boys sat downstairs. I actually liked sitting upstairs. We could look down on everyone and see what was going on, while we could be a little less formal.

But my Grandma Thelma and her good friend, Clara Wagner, rebelled one year. They said enough was enough. They did not want to climb the stairs anymore. So the congregation made a mehitzah for the downstairs and made the last three rows of seating for women. Grandma and Clara much happier, and keeping them happy was important. They were both very strong willed women!

I think they would be thrilled to know that there will be a woman rabbi there leading services this summer. Obviously men and women are sitting together and the mehitzah is down.

The shul was where we celebrated special events as well. My parents wedding anniversary was in June. One year, in honor of their anniversary, we held a special kiddish luncheon. My Grandpa Nat, a retired baker, baked plum cake after plum cake. Every oven was filled. Luckily he had saved many of his cooking trays.

The day of the kiddish was special. We were all there, family and congregation members. My Grandma asked Grandpa to sing in Yiddish for us. Grandpa had the best voice. His first song did not make my Mother happy. He sang, “Was is Geven ist Geven it Nitch Du.” My Mom said, “Daddy, why that song?” ‘What was, was and never will be again,’ is not what my Mom wanted to hear on her anniversary. (I think he was reliving her wedding, which occurred when my Dad was in the army on his way to Korea. It was a difficult time for the family, I have been told.)

My Grandpa laughed and then sang Tumbelalika and Schtetla Belz among other songs. There was some singing along, but mainly Grandpa singing to all of us.

We also celebrated my Grandma’s birthday there once or twice. Her birthday was in July. So perhaps her 70 or 75th birthdays were celebrated in the shul.

Grandpa was a cohen. He did not want to go to shul every week, but if no other cohen was available he went. In his younger days he would walk the mile or so to shul. But as he drifted near his 80s and older, he began to drive. He would park at Newman’s or across from Sylvia’s store and then walk the rest of the way. He just could not bring himself to drive all the way to shul on Shabbat.

I remember that a rabbi was hired that was a bit too orthodox for the shul. He put strings up around the syngagoue. As we walked to the shul, my Grandpa stopped and stood so still. “Vas Machts?” He turned to my Grandma. “I haven’t seen that since the shtetl!” He said. (Yes, he said it in Yiddish, but I don’t know how to write the entire sentence.)

I wanted to know what it was; it was an iruv. It makes a wall around the area of the synagogue or community so that people can carry things. You are not supposed to carry on Shabbat, but with an iruv up you can.

My grandparents had many friends at the shul. Among their closests friends were Abe and Clara Wagner. I can still see Abe, a plumber, down in a hole at my grandparents’ bungalow colony asking for some tool.   And my Grandpa laughing hysterically at the sight of the little red haired, highly freckled plumber in a hole.   Abe was so mad, “Stop laughing and hand me the tool.” But they both had a good laugh.

I remember going to their home many times with my Grandma and sitting and talking with Clara.

When Clara passed away, my grandmother was inconsolable for quite awhile. But when Abe remarried, she was welcoming to his new wife.

It was Abe who was there for my Grandpa when my Grandma passed away. We got the phone call from the hospital early on an August morning. My Grandpa refused to go to the hospital. He said, “She is gone, why do I need to go there.” They were worried about him at the hospital as he was in his 80s. So my Mom called Abe.

I can see it as yesterday. Abe spoke to my grandfather briefly, then he pointed at me. “Ellen, you come with me,” he said.

We went to the hospital, and while I signed my grandmother’s name over and over again on documents, Abe said. “Stay with them, I will be back.” At the time the emotion of signing Grandma’s name was all I thought of, nothing else.

We left when he returned. He had a big plastic bag of Grandma’s stuff. As we passed a dumpster, Abe told me throw it all out. “Your Grandpa doesn’t need any of that stuff,” he said.

I then turned to him and said, “Abe, I never saw Grandma.”
“Don’t worry, I took care of it,” He said.

And he did.

Grandma was buried in New Jersey, in our family plot. We, my parents, Grandpa and I, drove back to the Catskills from the cemetery. Grandpa sang, Johnny Mercer’s song, “Autumn Leaves” all the way back. “We promised each other that whoever remained would sing this song,” my Grandpa said. I still cannot bear to hear that song.

When we got to the house, all was ready. There was water by the door. There was a spread of eggs and other dairy items on the table. I am not sure if it was relatives or the Jewish community who prepared everything. But I know that many members of Congregation Temple Beth El came to sit shiva with my Grandpa. They were there for him for the many years he remained living at Kauneonga Lake.

My grandparents and parents always supported Congregation Temple Beth El. And as a community the people of the shul comforted my family.

I am so glad that services are still held at the shul on the hill, and that I have renewed my membership to support it and keep it alive.