First Person

Jewish World Review Sept. 10, 2002 / 4 Tishrei 5763

The old men in
the synagogue

By Jack Engelhard | The old men in the synagogue have always been there for me. They were there again this year. Each year at this time I worry that they will all be gone, dead from old age, taking with them the "flame."

Of course, someday they will all be gone, and I wonder who will take their place. Certainly not my generation. We were raised, as the rabbi says, to be polite, "excuse me" Jews.

As for the old men, they came from the outlands of Russia and Poland, and there was nothing varnished about them. They brought with them a singular heritage, and they knew nothing else but to be emphatically Jewish.

To me, they are a comfort. They make me eternal.

In these Days of Awe, I make my yearly visit to the small Orthodox synagogue, and I am a stranger. I hate myself for all that I do not know. I can't read the Hebrew and I don't know when to sit or rise or say Amen. I just follow what the old men do.

The old men know everything.

The synagogue is their home. They hand me the prayer book and, every so often, point me to the right page. "We are now saying the Shema, says an old man.

Hear, O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One.

The past is more real to them than the present.

"You should wear warmer clothes," an old man says to me. "In Auschwitz, it got cold early. The people who brought light clothes, they had no chance. Always wear warm clothes. I know what Iım talking about."

Many of them go back before Auschwitz, back to the upheavals of the 1920s. Each endured a different hardship, escaped a different tyrant -- but they all studied, and learned by heart, the Five Books of Moses.

The cantor now chants the ancient melodies, refrains that have endured from exile to exile.

"He is excellent today," says an old man, speaking of the cantor. "He knows what he is saying. Notice how he squeezes all the right words. Excellent."

"Why," I ask, "is it so important to squeeze the right words?"

"Why?" says the old man. "I'll tell you why. When you go before a judge, you demand the best lawyer to plead your case.

Today we are before the Highest Judge. The cantor is our lawyer."

Yes, these are the Days of Judgment.

On the first day of the year, goes the prayer, it is inscribed, and on the Fast Day of Atonement, it is sealed and determined, how many shall pass by, and how many born; who shall live and who die, who shall finish his allotted time, and who not.

The rabbi -- a man from old Russia who speaks passionately of his love for America -- sits in a corner to the left of the Holy Ark, wrapped in his prayer shawl, the picture of an ancient prophet. All of his grown sons are rabbis.

Next to him stands his youngest, an 11-year-old son who apes his father in words and gestures.

"You shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children."

In my youth, the Days of Awe meant Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur --- and the World Series. And one year, the Los Angeles Dodgers' great pitcher, Sandy Koufax, would not pitch on Yom Kippur. That was a source of pride to Jews, especially to those who were Yankees fans.

And today, I would still rather be asked Ted Williams' lifetime batting average than be asked up to read the Torah...I have the answer for Williams.

The rabbi's sermon is on that very subject. He is worried about "the golden chain of our heritage" that it is about to be broken.

As he spoke those words nearly twenty years ago, it had occurred to me then, that I was now 42 -- and when my father was that age, he was an old man -- one of the "old men in the synagogue."

He also knew everything.

Years from now, I wonder, who will be there to show me the right page? And will there be any old men left for my son? He is only 2 years old, and the old men cover him with love.

To them, he is the flame. He is their eternity.

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Jack Engelhard is the author of the international bestseller "Indecent Proposal" and is a former radio and newspaper editor covering the Mideast. This story is excerpted from the book "Escape From Mount Moriah: Memoirs of a Refugee Child's Triumph." Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, Jack Engelhard