From above, shivering in the women’s balcony of the Nozyk Synagogue, I can see the lamed, clearly, and then I see the bet. The lamed is the last letter of Yisrael, the last word of the Torah. The bet is the first letter of the first word: Bereishit (At the Beginning). I am weeping over Moses dying before he can see his people live in freedom in their own land.
I am in the last of four hundred synagogues in one of the greatest Jewish cities where the small group of contemporary Jews in Warsaw is led by the American rabbi Michael Schudrich. Charismatic and energetic, Rabbi Schudrich uses the non-governmental title Chief Rabbi of Poland though he is well- connected to–and influential with–the Polish government.
This synagogue was new at the turn of the twentieth century. It is big, it is beautiful, it shares the affectations of many urban synagogues of post-Enlightenment Europe. It is as elegant as the churches that loomed for centuries over the streets which Jews had only lately been permitted to build in.
I can’t believe that any of the roughly two dozen men I see now ever prayed here before the war. Or ever knew anyone who prayed here before the war.
Where did the they come from? More precisely, where have they been? By the end of communism, there were no Jewish people in Poland. The Germans did a ruthless job, and the Communists cleaned up the rest, in waves, until 1968 made it definitively impossible to live as a Polish Jew.
My father often said that a Jew can walk into any synagogue, anywhere in the world, and know exactly what is going on. He meant that our link through the text of prayer is what makes the Jews a people.
This rag-tag group gives me the feeling that I might as well be praying among international expats in Hong Kong for all that I’m linked, physically, to my ancestors.
But it is impossible to forget that Nazis stabled their horses in this sacred place, impossible to forget the way one third of the city’s population were disposed of. Poland’s current interest in fixing the Jewish problem doesn’t manage to stitch together the actual genealogical rope that was cut, and cut again, and cut yet again.
Simchat Torah is the most festive holiday in the Jewish calendar. Today I want to dance and sing. Joy in Torah has every synagogue emptying its ark of every Torah, and parading these scrolls around the synagogue in celebratory circuits. Seven times. Seven Hakafot. The only woman in the synagogue when I arrive is praying the morning silent meditation. She’s young, very beautiful, covered in a tightly wrapped headscarf and exceedingly modest clothes—a hybrid of Bronx Modern Orthodox and Brooklyn Lubavitch.
More women arrive but the atmosphere upstairs is stiff and quiet. None of us is singing the prayers. I worry about offending local custom if I raise my voice. It is cold. I’m uncomfortable in the tense silence. Eventually a woman my age and her daughter, with strong voices and a kavanah I recognize, join us. At Kiddush, I learn she is Helise Lieberman principal of the Lauder Morasha Day School in Warsaw. Today’s Ba’al Tefiliah is her husband, Yale Reisner, Director of the Jewish Genealogy Learning Center.
The men dance in big circles, and in pairs, and with the children. They set silly hats on each other. They climb on the furniture like monkeys and the children steal the shoes they’ve set aside. Still, not one woman dances. Not with another, not even swaying to herself. Our wildest activity is tossing a single modest Milky Way candy on a man reading from the bimah. We use a stuffed bear in a sporadic game of catch from our balcony to the children in the main well of the sanctuary. When Yale Reisner starts the musaf, he drapes himself in an extra tallit and others drape him in more. Then in a sheet of blue plastic. As he begins the prayer for rain– Mashiv HaRuach u’Morid Hageshem–his daughter pours water from a plastic cup on him.
Every synagogue has its customs. Some, like mock rain, are new to me. Others, I haven’t seen in fifty years. A man brings out paper flags on wooden sticks and I remember the little depressing apples stuck on top of the flags of my childhood. How my mother competitively told me she had it worse. Her Brownsville flags were topped with “bokser,” St. Johns Bread, dried carob pods from the holy land. Contemporary hakafot in New York are marked by adults throwing pounds of candy and children begging for more candy.
In the Nozyk Synagogue I hear the old tunes like a big comforting feather bed. The people who taught me brought them from over here. I wonder if some of the important Warsaw Jews prayed here. Did Abraham Joshua Heschel or S. An-ski or I. L. Peretz ever stare as the Moorish arches of the choir while brooding about his latest draft?
The familiar songs force a revision of my father’s assertion. We do not have to choose between liturgy and geography. That’s a chicken and egg problem. While I do not have to be on ulica Twarda, 6 to connect to the Jews of the last thousand years, or even to some distant relatives of the past century; when I hear the call Ana Hashem Hoshi’a Na (Oh Lord, save us) modulate to the joyful and confident Aneinu, Aneinu B’yom Koreinu (Answer us now on the day we call), I am linked to the place where this prayer once was sung, is still sung.
In Out of Egypt André Aciman sets out the ironic details of his last Passover seder in Alexandria . His multi-lingual, multi-temperamental family celebrates the biblical exodus on the eve of their expulsion from an Egyptian Jewish paradise.
Outside the synagogue, trailing the last of the seven hakafot, I think of Aciman’s exquisite agony. I am suddenly exchanging song phrases with a particularly open-faced teenage boy: L’Shana…Ha’Ba’a …b’Yerushalayim. Next year in Jerusalem. Jerusalem Rebuilt. Silver-and-silk-covered scrolls are dancing around the building in a damp cold early October, followed at a decent distance by Warsaw Police and private security guards. One old babcia has put her morning shopping on the ground and is clapping us along. We are doing this a few steps from Aleje Jerozolimskie.
Ironies of place. I want to know: did I. B. Singer, did Uri Zvi Grinberg, did Esther Shumiatsher, did Menachem Begin, ever stand in this courtyard? Did “Jerusalems Avenue” signify only underneath their conscious thought as “Park Avenue” does mine? Or did they play slowly with the irony and the legend of the street’s plural naming? Did the Zionists stand here and decide to make literal the metaphorical wish for a translation to Jerusalem? Did the poets ask “Oh, Lord, save us,” here? Now? Or did they breath this air, as I do now, wondering what, exactly an answer to the collective demand would sound like? Did they imagine, as I hope to, an answer from an attentive deity?