Rosh Hashanah is here and there is so much to think about and to articulate. The question is where to start. Where will these first few words of this essay eventually take us?
The challenge is that over these last 23 years I’ve covered so much and have even reiterated the same ideas several times. But even though they may be the same experiences, I keep recalling different aspects of the same events.
Let’s start with a dream I had a few nights ago. It was about the anxiety associated with making sure I found a chair to sit on at the second-floor makeshift shul where my father was the ba’al tefillah on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This room, lined with glass-covered bookshelves, was once the library and office of the Frierdiker Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson.
To this day I’m not sure why we davened up there only during this period of the year. All I know is that when I came of age, so to speak, or started being aware of going to shul at about age seven or eight, on these yomim tovim we had an exclusive minyan up there.
As more time passes, the events of that period in my personal history don’t recede deeper into the past; on the contrary, they crystalize and become even clearer in a sense.
That is particularly true of what it meant to daven with my father as the ba’al tefillah and the ba’al korei in this minyan. He ran the show with panache and sincerity. The high point for my brother and me was at the conclusion of Mussaf when we joined him under his tallis for Birkas Kohanim. As he led the prayers, he would sway from side to side ever so slightly with his arms wrapped around our shoulders. I’d look up at him to watch him enunciate and sing the words, and without any lapse he would look back at us and smile. How can I get those days back?
A few memories come to mind from those formative years. On erev Yom Kippur people used to line up before the Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in order to receive from the Rebbe a small slice of honey cake. The idea behind the custom is twofold. One is a culinary way of expressing the hope that the recipient enjoys a sweet new year.
The other aspect of this minhag is that if it had been decreed on Rosh Hashanah that at some point during the year ahead you are destined to receive a handout, so to speak, this gesture covers that decree.
The small piece of cake was usually moist and tasty. It was a ritual many of us looked forward to each year, if not for the cake than for the brief opportunity to lock eyes with the Rebbe for a second or two and be the recipient of his wishes for a good and sweet New Year.
Another aspect of this time of year that always fascinated me is the portion of the Torah that is read immediately preceding the Jewish New Year—Nitzavim. The Torah reading this Shabbos begins with, “You are standing firmly today, all of you together before G-d, your G-d…”
The intriguing thing about this parashah is that it is concerned about where and how we are standing, while just about every shul now is largely concerned about where all the congregants will be sitting over yom tov.
This idea reminds me about the places I’ve sat in shul over the years and where I will be sitting this year as well. In those early years upstairs at 770, as I’ve mentioned in previous essays, we davened in a mostly empty room, and it was our task to carry chairs from the Rebbe’s dining room, which was down the hall from the library, into what would become our shul for three or four days a year.
When we first moved to the Five Towns in 1994, we davened in a nearby shtiebel (not the Shtiebel). It was a small group and a very nice minyan. The davening went well until we reached the end of Yom Kippur and the time for the fast’s conclusion came and went … and we were still sitting there, plumbing our way through the davening.
Yochanan was just 13 and it was his first Yom Kippur fasting. He looked at me as if to say, “What is going on here? I thought the fast was over?”
Well, it was, but not for us, not yet. We promised ourselves that the next year we would try another shul.
We were still relatively new to the community, so we joined a bigger shul in the Five Towns—it had many more seats and would also finish the Yom Kippur davening by the time the fast was supposed to end. Since I was a new member I was told that I’d have to meet with a board member of the shul who is in charge of seating.
I introduced myself to this man after Shacharis on a Sunday morning, adding that I was going to need two seats in the men’s section and two in the women’s section—for Esta and Malkie. He looked at his chart and then looked back at me, then looked down again at the chart, all the while shaking his head from side to side.
Then he said that the shul was full to capacity and there were just no seats to assign to us in the men’s section; the women’s section was not a problem. While breaking the news to me about the non-availability of seats he stopped mid-sentence and said, “One second, I think I can do this.”
He pointed to the chart and said he could put me in two specific seats, explaining: “You see, these two people, a father and son, come to shul very late, usually about noon.” He said I should sit there with my son until that duo arrives, and by that time some of the older people who come to shul very early will have left, and I can then take their seats.
I don’t know exactly what expression I wore, but I must have looked resigned to his proposal, so that is exactly how it went. We sat in those seats until we sensed two people standing over us and heard the inevitable words: “Those are our seats.”
We stood up, and just as the seating person predicted, there were a few empty seats behind us where we parked ourselves until the end of davening. The following year we had our own seats for the whole day without having to share with anyone else. But a year or so after that, we began attending the shul in the home of Rabbi Yakov Nayman in Sutton Park.
We davened there every yom tov and most Shabbosos for the next 15 years, until Rabbi Nayman passed away and the shul closed shortly thereafter.
It was not only a pleasure to daven in Rav Nayman’s shul but a z’chus and a privilege to daven in the presence of a man who managed to escape Poland and the Holocaust barely a step ahead of the Nazis. He was ultimately saved by heroic Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara who singlehandedly saved the families of the Mir Yeshiva, facilitating their way to safety in Shanghai; from there, most made their way to the United States.
Rabbi Nayman rarely spoke in shul from the time we joined, when he was in his mid-80s, until his passing at 101 years old, but one thing was definite—he would always say a few words just prior to Neilah on Yom Kippur.
His theme, and a concept that he always seemed bothered by, was not just G-d’s hiddenness but the fact that His hiddenness remains even all these years later, and after people like him experienced G-d’s obscurity.
I remember one morning after Shacharis when I found out that it was his 97th birthday. I lingered a bit after davening and asked him to what he attributes his longevity. He didn’t have to formulate an answer but rather immediately responded in Yiddish that the key is to “make sure people need you.” That made a lot of sense then, and it makes a great deal of sense today.
Now, all these years later, there are many wonderful shuls and minyanim to join. Many feature world-class chazzanim and ba’alei tefillah. We daven at Bais Berish, which is the meaningful and heimish minyan in the back of the home of Hannah and Berish Fuchs in Lawrence.
It started during COVID when most shuls were still closed but the restrictions were easing somewhat. That was a difficult time period for all of us, but this minyan just grew, and Hannah and Berish poured their hearts and souls into it to the point that it has become an attractive and wonderful place to daven. The fact is that if I’m asked if anything good emerged from the COVID experience it would have to be the enhanced ability to work remotely and the Fuchs minyan.
We are looking forward to this year’s davening and extend our wishes to everyone for a Shanah Tovah U’Mesukah.
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.