My aunt once told us the story of driving up to the Empire Hotel in the Catskills (it opened and closed long before I was around) with my uncle and several other aunts and uncles for a yom tov getaway.
The time period was about 1943–44, during World War II. Back then, there was no NYS Thruway — just the two-lane, curvy, and slow Old Route 17. They needed to get to that “highway” via New Jersey or by driving to a small bridge near West Point that allowed cars access over the Hudson River. Forget about the Tappan Zee Bridge (now officially named the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge) — it didn’t yet exist, nor had anyone even put that idea to paper.
So up they drove, with the weather getting worse and worse until they suddenly found themselves in the middle of a blizzard. The driving was hazardous and slow; there were no snowplows or snow tires back then, just chains you put on your tires when you had the opportunity to prepare in advance.
They finally pulled into the hotel four hours later only to find that the hotel was dark, as all the electricity was out because of the blizzard. The many guests who were congregated in the lobby, including my aunt and family, were discouraged as to what kind of yom tov it would be with no electricity and no idea when it would go on again. They were especially disheartened after driving all that way for a family get-together intended to lift everyone’s spirits.
The men quickly davened and then joined the women in the hotel dining room, which was now bathed in candlelight, without a lightbulb burning anywhere. The guests were all depressed and trying to figure out what they could do to make things more uplifting.
The maître d’ of the hotel came in the room suddenly and announced that the hotel had decided to sponsor a zemiros contest. Each table would have the opportunity to present their rendition of the best zemiros at the end of the yom tov, and the table that was voted the best table of zemiros would be the winner. The first prize, being offered by the hotel, was “Free Board.”
Well, before long, all the guests were getting into the swing of practicing zemiros since everyone wanted to win that prize. They got so involved in practicing different zemiros that they forgot all about the electricity being out.
The guests were so hyped up that they could be heard practicing while they were washing up in the morning, humming to themselves as they went back and forth from the hallways, their rooms, the lobby and the dining room, and singing zemiros in every corner of the hotel.
Needless to say, by the end of yom tov, everyone was anxious to see who was voted the best zemiros table and would win the “free board” prize.
The maître d’ of the hotel came out to sudden silence to announce the winning table, amid clapping and cheering. The maître d’ then turned to the door and ushered in the waiter to present the prize. The waiter entered the dining room with a 2×4 piece of lumber in his hands, walked over to the winning table of guests, and said, “Let me present you with First Prize — a free board!” And he handed them the 2×4 piece of lumber.
The entire room erupted in laughter, recognizing that the hotel had found a way to distract them from the electricity outage and blizzard, and they all had enjoyed a great yom tov.
I share this story now with everyone, because the davening situation for the coming yomim tovim reminds me so much of this story, although in a different way.
We have tent cities going up all over the Five Towns and beyond, setting up conditions for davening that were unknown until this year of COVID. Ten people here, 20 over there, here a tent, there a tent that can hold 60 …
All of us are involved in these one way or another, but the most unusual side event going on is the rehearsal of those volunteers who never before davened for the amud on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur and now find themselves appointed with this responsibility. They are diligently practicing whatever section of the Machzor they have been assigned as shaliach tzibbur.
The YouTube videos of chazzanim singing Kol Nidrei or Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah with all the niggunim are running on a loop in the homes of those who volunteered for the first time in their lives to take on the mitzvah of shaliach tzibbur for these numerous outdoor minyanim that require ba’alei tefillah in light of this crazy year.
The practicing goes on all day and into the night, with YouTube, Machzorim, and CDs as learning aids. The new chazzanim meet with each other to see how they are managing and to get opinions and tips to improve as they rehearse again and again.
As this crazy year progresses, the stories of how we all worked to make Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur meaningful for everyone should definitely be remembered and passed on to our grandchildren, in smiling and happy remembrance of how the determination of our fellow Jewish neighbors made this yom tov special for us all.
Wishing a Chag Sameach and Ketivah V’Chatima Tovah to all! Next year in Jerusalem (without COVID)!
Anessa Cohen lives in Cedarhurst and is a licensed real-estate broker (Anessa V Cohen Realty) and a licensed N.Y.S. loan officer (FM Home Loans) with over 20 years of experience offering full-service residential, commercial, and management real-estate services as well as mortgage services. She can be reached at 516-569-5007 or via her website, www.AVCrealty.com. Readers are encouraged to send questions or comments to anessa@AVCrealty.com.