By Keith Bloomfield
The corners of Tremont Avenue and Southern Boulevard were the epicenters of my young life. Southern Boulevard lacked the towering apartment buildings and affluence of the Grand Concourse, but it was my neighborhood. Neighborhoods were more important than where they were located.
On Sundays, everyone in the neighborhood trekked to Southern Boulevard sometime during the day. They sat on an expanse of concrete and wooden benches lining the islands surrounded by lanes of slow moving Sunday traffic. Dark Buicks and Chevrolets with their chrome plated bumpers set in a perpetual sneer cruised the boulevard while their drivers sought out the familiar face of a pedestrian, as if to say "look at me in this car, while you have to walk."
My neighbors brought out folding lawn lounges, bridge chairs and even milk crates, but they made their presence known. Everyone dressed for the occasion: adults wore suits or dresses. Even babies in carriages were swathed in layettes meant to impress the neighbors as they paraded past parked strollers. Only one occasion garnered more vanity than a Sunday on Southern Boulevard and that was the birthday of the world: Rosh Hashanah.
My Grandpa and I would often walk to shul by ourselves. No one else in the family really wanted to go and it gave me a chance to talk to my Grandpa without anyone around to joust for his attention. "God doesn't care about your outsides," he once told me on route. "He cares about your insides," and he punctuated his observation by banging on his chest with his fist as though we were already in services and he was working himself up reciting the Al Chait - the litany of sins repeated each and every year.
The synagogue was a short walk from Grandpa's apartment. My grandparents lived on the third floor of a building whose hallways were always dark and filled with the pungent aromas of someone else's dinner cooking on the stove or roasting in the oven. We needed to pass an endless parade of identical apartment buildings to reach the shul. We would start by crossing Tremont and stroll past the bike store where my parents would purchase my first two-wheeler the very next spring. Sometimes we had to step lightly to avoid the cobblestones that often peeked up through their protective layer of asphalt.
On Rosh Hashanah, particularly on the way to shul, it felt as though everyone was Jewish. Everyone wished everyone "Chag Sameach" or "L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem" or to a woman, "L'shanah tovah tikatevi v'taihatemi" - "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year," whether they knew them or not. People whose faces I thought I recognized, I quickly realized that I didn't know. And it made little difference.
On Rosh Hashanah we were all bound together by "glue" as Grandpa would say. "A special glue that seems to last from erev Rosh Hashanah until tikiah gadola sounds on Yom Kippur. Then for the rest of the year, no one can find the formula to whip up another batch. It's a shonda. It really is. Like manna from heaven, it's there and then it's gone."
The synagogue was the largest building I had ever seen firsthand. It was built to be a synagogue: not converted from another building. Its thick red brick walls towered above any building adjacent to it. A huge concrete "magen david" was cast in bas-relief above the columned portico marking the building's main entrance. A throng of people either trying to enter or exit blocked the massive bronze doors.
No matter where we went, Grandpa would always run into someone he knew and we would stop and chat. When he spoke to an old crony, they would talk to each other in Yiddish, all the while looking at me out of the corners of their eyes. Broad gestures and flailing arms punctuated his conversations and they always ended with a broad smile and a firm handshake.
Once, before he moved on to be recognized by another old friend, I said, "What were you talking about, Grandpa?"
"My friend Yussel, knew your dad when he was your age and I used to bring him here on the holidays. He thinks you look just like him."
It was difficult for me to believe that my grandfather had been coming here, to this shul since my dad was my age and probably even before that. Looking around, it was obvious that he was not the only one who continued to return here: year after year. Jews don't need a calendar to tell them when the High Holidays fall. Why? I certainly don't know. Salmon return to their home waters to spawn. Birds fly south in the winter. Was it something wired into our psyches or coded in our DNA? It didn't matter, because whatever it was that drove us together for three days each year bore the hand of the divine.
Grandpa was not a member of the shul. He could not even afford the tickets the shul sold to non-members so they could pray during the High Holidays. Grandpa and I were not alone; a thick wall of humanity surrounded the building. Grandpa and I would stand at an open window and look in at the congregation from the outside.
As we jockeyed for a spot near a window, Grandpa hoisted me up in the air and sat me on the windowsill, with my legs dangling against one of the radiators that lined the synagogue walls. There I would sit throughout the service like Grandma's prized hanukiah, the one that sat on the windowsill during Hanukah: the one she hid in a shawl and brought with her all the way from Russia. As its candle laden arms illuminated the night, passersby on the street would point and stare at it wondering to whom it belonged.
From my treasured throne, I took in the entire sanctuary. To my left, at the rear of the sanctuary was the balcony where the women sat. High overhead, around three sides of the room sat all the women of the congregation. "How can you concentrate on davening when the room is filled with women dressed in their holiday best," observed my Grandpa.
I always looked forward to the start of the Torah service when the entire congregation stood as one to watch the heavy wooden doors of the ark swing open to reveal a set of Torah scrolls dressed in gleaming silver crowns and breastplates. The Rabbi and Cantor, in white robes and tall white caps made luminous by the sun streaking through the windows above the balcony, stood before the crowd with the scrolls nestled on their shoulders.
The Cantor's booming voice sang the first line of the Sh'ma. "Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad." (Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.) Then the congregation would respond and soon the Cantor and the Rabbi were leading separate processions at the heads of long lines of distinguished guests and temple members along the side aisles. I knew that they would eventually converge at the back of the sanctuary and return to the bimah by way of the broad center aisle, but this was my chance to get close to the Rabbi and the sefer Torah he carried.
I was standing on the windowsill now, supported by my Grandpa and waiting for the procession to pass us. In his floor-length robe, the Rabbi appeared to float down the end aisle. When he was nearly in front of us, Grandpa would offer me one end of his tallis. I carefully wrapped the knotted tzizit, the fringes at each corner of the prayer shawl around my fingers. As the procession finally reached us, the Rabbi actually stopped so that Grandpa and I could reach out and touch the breastplate on the Torah with our tzizit swaddled fingers and bring them to our lips. The Rabbi would pat the top of my head and whisper "L'shanah Tovah," before continuing his slow march to the back of the sanctuary. This was an honor for the men at the ends of each aisle and I felt privileged that the Rabbi stopped to personally wish me a Happy New Year.
Throughout the reading of the Torah and Haftorah my eyes were drawn to another party sitting on the bimah. He was perhaps a few years older then me, but certainly not much past his bar mitzvah. His dark suit and crew cut made him look mature beyond his years. His eyes darted around the room and for a brief moment we made contact. I smiled at him and I think he smiled back. He was nervous and I knew exactly why. He was the ba'al tekiah: the member of the community chosen to blow the shofar, the long twisted ram's horn whose sound always raised goose bumps on my arms and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand like the congregation in front of an open ark. It was from a ram like the one that Abraham sacrificed in place of Isaac.
Rising as one, the entire congregation chanted: "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who makes us holy with mitzvot and calls us to hear the sound of the shofar." It was Yom Teruah, a day of Shofar blowing and this pale boy whose shofarot would climb to the gates of heaven was charged today to open our minds and hearts in repentance and he would do it with only three notes. "The entire world stands on just three legs," said my Grandpa. "Prayer (tefilah), Torah and gifts of loving kindness (tsadakah). So why shouldn't the Lord be satisfied with these three notes?"
First there was Tekiah the long shrill unifying note. Then came Shevarim the shofar's triple staccato sighs. Next there was Teruah the nine plaintive sobs of the ram's horn. Tekiah Gedolah the grand note of alarm that wakes us from our slumbers and spurs us on to confess and repent our sins concluded the shofarot.
The Rabbi called out each shofarot before the young man played them. "Tekiah," sang the Rabbi and the youngster filled the sanctuary with the first piercing tone.
"Shevarim-Teruah," intoned the Rabbi and the boy responded with the horn's moaning and weeping response."
"Tekiah," he sang and the horn's brittle note struck at the hearts of everyone in the congregation. The Rabbi introduced each shofarot while the young ba'al tekiah stood in front of the congregation, perspiration flowing down his cheeks. Each blast of the ram's horn flowed over the congregants, filling the room and spilling out into the neighborhood through the synagogue's open windows.
These were sounds that I could recognize before ever hearing them. These were sounds recorded in our genes. These were sounds that made an indelible mark on who we were. The Torah required us to hear them for ourselves. Not through a microphone and loudspeaker, but directly from the horn to our ears, with no interlocutor between us.
Finally, after the long repetition of quatrains, it was time for the Tekiah Gedolah. Each year I waited expectantly for the final notes of the Tekiah Gedolah and every year I could feel my heart race as its blare filled the sanctuary. The entire congregation held their breath, their eyes transfixed on the young man standing before them. He took a deep breath and then the searing notes of the Tekiah Gedolah burst loose from the bell of the horn and its echoes cascaded from wall to wall to ceiling to floor, finally decaying into silence.
Perhaps it was the sounding of the shofar that stayed with me on into each New Year. Though I was too young to truly understand them, it was the words of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz in the Unetanneh Tokef that forever branded my soul:
"The great shofar is sounded,
A still small voice is heard.
The angels are dismayed,
They are seized by fear and trembling
As they proclaim: Behold the Day of Judgment!
For all the hosts of heaven are brought for judgment. . .
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die. . .
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree. . .
The origin of man is dust, his end is dust. He earns his bread by exertion and is like a broken shard, like dry grass, a withered flower, like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that blows away and dust that scatters, like a dream that flies away. . ."
Grandpa always brought me home at the end of the musaf, of course, he would return, find a spot near an open window and remain until the end of the service. Our walks home were usually silent. There was little that either of us could say to the other. While the world has suffered through as many birthdays as I have since those blissful days, I still look forward to Yom Teruah with the same naïve enthusiasm as I did when I accompanied my Grandpa to his majestic shul.
Early last Sunday, before the cars clogged the parkway and pedestrians took to the sidewalks, I drove to that hallowed ground. From Tremont Avenue, I turned onto the side street. The bike store was long gone, converted to a bodega selling sundries and cold beer. The building lined blocks I had strolled with my Grandpa passed in a blur. Gaping holes in the skyline let the sunshine through where buildings once kept the block cool and shaded.
When I reached the site of the old shul, I found an empty lot, littered with clumps of brick and shards of masonry. Whether they were from the once grand synagogue or artifacts of a building that rose from its ruins was anyone's guess. Leaning on the door of my car, I tried to imagine the facade of the building; its pews; its bimah; the ladies' balcony. The images materialized, but they never truly came into focus. But standing there alone on a clear brisk morning I was sure that I could hear Tekiah Gadolah percolate up through the rubble, echo in my ears and out into a neighborhood oblivious to its meaning.
from the September High Holyday 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine