B Y L A R R Y G O R D O N
As I looked at my father’s picture in my office the other day, we kind of had a fleeting staring contest. I blinked first. The look on his face is striking, in a contemplative and interesting way. I see the picture every day, and even on a day that I do not take a good, long look at it, I know that I am conscious that it’s there.
The look on his face the other day reminded me of the quiet preparation he used to do before davening at the amud at a special High Holy Day minyan that took place every year on the second floor of the Chabad headquarters building at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
My life began after this minyan was already a reality, so I suppose I was somewhat of an intruder. Thinking back about it now, of all the Rosh Hashanahs I’ve navigated my way through over the years, those were amongst the finest. The best part was that we were all so young, parents and children alike. I was a teenager and my parents were in their forties. There was a frozen-in-time feeling that this was the way it was going to be forever.
The davening in this rarely accessed library/study room of the Friediker Rebbe, R’ Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, evolved out of necessity. In the later years of his life—he passed away at age 70—the Rebbe took ill and was confined to a wheelchair. That required that a minyan be brought up to him, adjacent to his residence on the top floor of this building.
I’m not sure how my father got into the mix, but in my estimation and from what I was able to quietly observe, his participation was central to the functioning of this get-together each year. His job was to daven Mussaf, read from the Torah, and on Yom Kippur daven Ne’ilah as well. He did all these things with a serenity and steadiness that I have only been reflecting upon these last few years, nearly a quarter century after his passing.
There was a firmness and confidence in the way he led the services. He wasn’t a chazzan, and I don’t think there was any special magic in his voice or in the liturgical tunes that he employed during the services. The thing that was interesting about his davening was the sincerity and genuineness that he exuded. He was good and consistent, and that in itself was both moving and inspiring.
Let me tell you a little bit about the setting we davened in. It was the Rebbe’s study room. There was no aron kodesh, so except for the reading of the Torah, when a couple of the men went downstairs to another shul to bring two sifrei Torah from there, we did not have to delay with the standing and sitting that accompanies the usual constant opening and closing of the aron during these services.
Year after year, the study was always meticulously and sparklingly clean; the floors were shiny and even a bit slippery from being lacquered just before the holiday. The walls were lined on four sides with glass-enclosed bookcases, in which there were probably several thousand seforim. On one side, the bookshelves reached halfway up the wall, and above them were three stained-glass windows. These windows could be cranked open or shut, so whoever sat there—and the same people had those seats year after year—controlled the temperature in the room.
There was what appeared to be a large desk at which the Friediker Rebbe once studied and worked. A few years ago I arranged for one of the caretakers at 770 to take me up to that room to look around a bit. Everything was the same as it had been decades prior. This time, however, the desk didn’t loom as large.
The chair at the center of the desk, the Rebbe’s chair, remained empty. I would estimate that there were about six men who sat around the desk at these services—the same people each year. (There was also a wheelchair in the room that was once the Rebbe’s, which no one except an occasional curious small child would sit on.)
It was at the corner of this desk/table that my father would read from the Torah during leining. They did not place the Torah at the center, because that would mean moving the Rebbe’s chair. As far as I can recall, there were no sales of aliyos, but the same people more or less received the same aliyos each Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. My father read the Torah portions of the day with his usual steadiness and confidence. He delivered the words of the first day’s reading about the Akeidas Yitzchak with a small tremble in his voice that communicated to all in attendance the emotional drama of the event.
There was a room across the hall in which a woman davened all by herself. This was the widow of the Rebbe, Rebbetzin Nechama Dina. On some of these occasions, she had some relatives there to tend to her needs. I remember seeing her once as she opened the door a bit wider than usual to hear the blowing of the shofar by our steady ba’al tekiyah, Rav Sholom Dov Ber Rivkin, z’l. She seemed to be a tall woman in a blonde sheitel with a kerchief draped ever so slightly over it. As far as I can recall, she wore a long pink gown on that occasion.
If you read Joseph Telushkin’s book, Rebbe, then you became acquainted with Manya, the woman who was the caretaker or housekeeper in charge of keeping things orderly and together on this floor of 770. I believe part of her job was to take care of the Rebbetzin. The place up there had a regal, even majestic look to it, even to a young boy.
The setup there was an interesting one. It was orderly but also somewhat of a free-for-all. In order to get a proper chair from the dining room inside the residence, you had to show up early on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. There were two types of chairs. I think there were about 16 to 20 high-back, rather plush, leather dining-room chairs. If you managed to get one of these, you kind of had it made for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Then there were folding chairs with wood frames and red upholstered padded seats and backs. And along one wall there was a wooden bench, which looked like the most uncomfortable of all the options.
Of course the central focus was the davening itself. I know that I’ve written about this subject at length several times, so the memories and recollections are quite fresh. I know it may seem strange to many, but our minyan on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur began at 10:30 a.m. On Rosh Hashanah, services usually concluded at 2:30 p.m. and on Yom Kippur it was not unusual to have a break from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., depending, of course, on what time of year it was and when sunset was.
For years, I could not adjust to any other kind of davening, and still today—as you can see—I find myself comparing whatever shul I attend to the way things were back then. The davening may be good, but they all have a tough act to follow after my dad.
The best part of the davening in those days for us, his kids—and I suspect for my father as well—came when the services were almost concluded. It was for the Duchening, or Birkas Kohanim, that he would wave for me and my younger brother, Yossy, to join him under his tallis for the final segment of the Mussaf tefillah.
Under the tallis, obscured from the rest of the 40 or 50 people in our minyan, I could see in my father’s eyes that he was satisfied and content with what he had delivered. As he sang the traditional Chabad niggun for Duchening (which is also sung in Yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv), he would drape his arms around us and pull us close. He had this sparkle in his eyes and a joyful expression on his lips as he belted out the tune for all to hear.
Those were grand moments that, even as a teenager, I suspected might not last forever. But they were so good and so wonderful that here I am all these decades later still cherishing and holding on to them, thinking how good it would have been if only they could have lasted.
Shanah tovah u’mesukah!
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