It is that late-in-the-day Yom Kippur look that I still picture and will always remember. It was probably during Mussaf; the sun was shining brightly and we were a few more hours away from a sumptuous breaking of a 25-hour fast.
Almost a half-century later, all I have are these words to capture “that look” that said it all to me. Some people will comment that I have covered this topic more than several times over the years, but the images and ideas of those days are repeatedly conjured, especially at this time of year.
Yom Kippur is the day that we traditionally and historically devote to being in shul just about all day. It’s the one day each year that we dedicate to this type of unusual practice, as we ordinarily do not do that. Being in shul and davening is a dominating part of Orthodox Jewish life. Tefillah and minyanim often dictate our travels and much of what we do.
Many years ago — not that many, as I do remember him — there was a chassid named Mendel Futerfas. During the core years of Communism, he taught Torah to students in secret. For this specific reason, he was arrested by Soviet police and tried and sentenced to exile in Siberia.
As the story is told, Reb Mendel was blindfolded and placed on a train for the 36-hour journey deep into the Russian gulag. Years later, when he managed to immigrate to the U.S. and lived in Crown Heights, he was asked about that long train ride, being blindfolded and sent to an area of Russia that he was not familiar with, and what he did as soon as he arrived at his destination.
“They took off the blindfold and I looked around and it seemed to me that it was time for Minchah, so I davened Minchah,” he said.
That was not the case on the Yom Kippur I am recalling as I write these words. Those were better times. Sure, there were plenty of problems, but whatever they were they were also intertwined with an innocence that made many things more tolerable.
Anyway, in this scene that I’m picturing from more than half a century ago, my father is leading the davening toward the end of the afternoon on Yom Kippur. I’m standing next to him under his tallis. I’m on his right side, and my brother Yossy is on his left.
I bring this up at this time of year because the fashion in which my father davened for the amud has always been my barometer of all the other yom tov minyanim I have attended over the years. I’m not saying that he was a world-class cantor or chazzan — he would be the first to tell you that this was not the case — but he had a measured tone and a pleasant voice.
We davened in a relatively small room on the third floor of 770 Eastern Parkway, the main Chabad shul in New York. It was the library of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, the father-in-law of the next Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. They were apparently distant relatives, and they are buried side by side today at the Ohel, the cemetery in Cambria Heights in Queens, where hundreds of thousands of people pray at their gravesides every year.
That minyan up there overlooking the constant flow of traffic on Eastern Parkway continued for many years after the previous Rebbe’s passing. Only a few people had seats by the window, a location in that special room that I always coveted. Maybe it was a good thing that I didn’t sit at the window; I was too young anyway and required my father’s surveillance to guide me through both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Before I get back to my impressions from under his tallis on these special days, a few lines about that room. It was a well-appointed but basic library. It was never meant to be a shul and it was only turned into that because the Rebbe was in a wheelchair toward the end of his life and could not be moved downstairs to the main shul on the first floor of the iconic building.
There was no aron kodesh (ark) in the room, and through most of the days that we were there we davened without sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls). When the point in the davening called for the reading from the Torah, a couple of people went out to one of the other minyanim in the building and brought up two Torahs.
No sifrei Torah in the room also meant that through the service we dispensed with the standing and sitting back down that accompanies opening and closing the aron kodesh through the day. In most conventional shuls where there are sifrei Torah, there is a good deal of standing during both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These are also days, I’m sure you have observed, when some people do not stand when the aron is open. I suppose sometimes it is just too much.
My father davened Mussaf on Rosh Hashanah. He also davened Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur and he read from the Torah. I later realized that what I witnessed and observed was the smooth fashion in which he handled all these tasks.
These High Holy Days have a nusach and intonations as well as singing that belong exclusively to these three days. My impression is such that when I receive an aliyah to the Torah on any of these days, I think back to the cadence of the berachos back then, and I guess I try to recite them just like that.
So there I was standing at his side as he led the kohanim in birchas kohanim or “duchening,” as it is commonly referred to. We had a few kohanim up there and we were all in close proximity to one another because of the relative smallness of the room.
We stood there under my father’s tallis with him and watched him sing while also smiling down at us; he exuded calmness and a confidence that I always hoped I’d be able to emulate. His tallis was over his head, but he’d let it fall and rest on his shoulders so that he could put his arms around the two of us and pull us close. We looked up at him and just watched while he delivered the davening smoothly and with great poise.
I have his tallis on a table in my office at home. I don’t know if this is the same tallis under which I stood on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, watching him smile at us and lead the minyan in song, but I like to think that it is.
G’mar chasimah tovah to all.
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