It is especially at this time of year that shuls everywhere will be filling up. So when I dwell on the idea of the Jewish New Year, my mind wanders in varied directions and is focused on prayer. When it comes to Rosh Hashanah, it seems that everything in all shuls, regardless of how they function throughout the year, gets stepped up a few notches.
In this case, with Rosh Hashanah beginning on a Wednesday evening and then continuing through Thursday and Friday, you can rest assured that the landscape of the usual American week is going to be significantly altered. Even though the Jewish population of this country is less than 3 percent, it is something about us that has those minuscule numbers looming large on the U.S. as well as the global scene. It appears that Rosh Hashanah changes everything.
My Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur observances can basically be divided into three memorable categories. There was my childhood in Crown Heights, where we davened and attended services at Chabad Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. There was the first 15 years of marriage and developing family in Brooklyn in essentially two shuls. And then, for the last two decades, here in the Five Towns.
I can recall the early years at 770 with perhaps the utmost clarity, with the exception of the last few years, which are rather recent experiences. I believe that the middle category is mostly a blur because those were the formative years for the children and there was usually a lot of walking back and forth with kids from shul to the house and then the reverse over and over again throughout those years.
In a sense, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the building known simply as 770 were one. A little family history is in order here. My father’s family is from a Lubavitcher shtetl somewhere in what was once Russia, was Poland for a while, and then was Russia again and still is today. In 1940, the previous Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, arrived in New York and set up his base of operation at 770.
In the time before he passed away in 1950, at the age of 70, he was unable to walk and therefore a minyan for Shabbos and yom tov was formed on the third floor of the building where he resided with his rebbetzin. My father was one of the organizers of this minyan, and he was also the ba’al Mussaf, the ba’al kriah who read the Torah portion, and, on Yom Kippur, the chazzan for Neilah. The minyan up there on the third floor of 770 continued for some years, ostensibly for the benefit of Rebbetzin Nechamah Dina, but then it continued for years after she passed away in 1971.
So as you can see, preparing for Rosh Hashanah in those days was a multifaceted special event. We did not get to see that third floor at 770 on just any occasion. Only during these High Holy Days were we allowed such unfettered access, and that made these holy days high as well as special and unique.
We davened in the previous Rebbe’s library, which remained intact year after year. Though a full year would pass, not only did the room always look the same but absolutely nothing had been moved. In one corner of the room was his old wheelchair, then his large desk with a large two-armed padded chair. The books on the shelves were enclosed in a locked cabinet that covered all four walls—I don’t recall those glass doors ever being opened—and the dark wood floors always had a remarkable shine to them.
Years later, I prevailed on one of the gabbaim who oversaw that third floor to take me up there so that I could once again peruse that room. Everything was still startlingly in place, the books on the desk, the chair, and even a suitcase with the initials JJS on them, all very tidy and orderly.
As I’ve written in the past, the high point of the yom tov was davening with my dad. He had a smooth and melodic delivery—no fancy stuff, just straight from the heart, like everything else he did. The best part was the duchening or the Birkas Kohanim when my brother Yossy and I stood under the tallis with him. As he sang, he pulled us close to him, squeezed our arms, and smiled. He looked over at us and smiled, and I suppose it was a knowing smile that the tefillos he was leading would be accepted On High.
It’s a little funny, but I had an inkling that this was going to be the moment—even as a teenager back then—that I would always remember, and it is only now after all these years that I see how true that feeling really was.
As for the middle years, they focused on two or three shtiebel-type shuls in Midwood, Brooklyn. I don’t know how many times on one Rosh Hashanah a person can walk back and forth between the shul and his house a few blocks away, but I’m sure that between my wife and me, we at least tied whatever the record was.
And then we moved to the Five Towns two decades ago, still with some small children and a good amount of back-and-forth. For many of those first 18 years, we attended the shul in the basement of the home of Rabbi Yaakov Nayman, zt’l. The rabbi passed away a few years ago at the age of 100. The rabbi, in his own inimitable way, was a unique type of leader and personality. He survived the Holocaust, managing to run with his family from city to city, staying barely one step ahead of the Nazis, until he joined up with the Mir Yeshiva in Shanghai. He was a rav in Chicago for close to 50 years. I don’t need to go through his entire life story, but let it suffice to say that he was an extraordinary individual.
So davening within a few feet of him on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was always special and inspiring. Rav Nayman addressed the shul infrequently but usually managed a brief few words before the sounding of the shofar blasts or on Yom Kippur before Neilah.
I cannot recall everything he said on those rare occasions. He did strike, however, a recurring theme and that was the matter of hester panim, the fashion in which Hashem conceals Himself from us. Again and again he would repeat those words with a look of exasperation on his face. He would pull his hand over his face, seemingly in an attempt to remove or deal with his troubling frustration about the matter. He often said it was an elongated hiddenness that reached back to the war years and the unfathomable and inexplicable death of so many. It stretched all the way to our modern times, that is our yearning for the presence of Hashem in our lives, our davening and beseeching Him to be good and kind to us, yet we often find a profound silence and a deeply mysterious concealment. Another one of his consistent messages to the shul was to “make sure that you are always needed.” That way, Rav Nayman explained, you are somewhat indispensable down here on earth because others are depending on you.
In his late nineties, after all those decades of experience, having lost so much he still could not grasp what it was that Hashem was telling us by being so obscure and so still.
The rabbi davened at the front of the relatively small shul with such intensity. His presence for all those years after all that he had endured was a source of comfort, hope, and inspiration. Just being in his presence for all those years was a very special privilege.
I once saw a rather poignant billboard in Israel that read, “The Jewish future is in our past.” It’s a pithy little sentence but one that rings especially true at Rosh Hashanah. After all, we are indeed the sum total of our experiences. I suppose that it is that precious personal past that makes us who we are and allows us to act as a conduit to our children and grandchildren and somehow communicate to them what it was like to daven on Rosh Hashanah in the presence of greatness and all that was good with the world. At this time of year, all I have to do is close my eyes, which enables me to see it all so clearly. Kesivah v’chasimah tovah to all. v
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