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Under Father's Tent, Still and Always

by Annette Keen

When I was a very little girl we lived in a small farm community and attended a wooden clapboard synagogue that my father and other European refugees had built for themselves so that they might be close enough to walk to it on Shabbat and holidays. When I began to fidget in my seat at services, sitting with my mother in the women's section behind the separating curtain, she would send me out to my father, who was leading the service at the bima. There I would stand quietly at his side while he prayed.

When I left home to attend university, among the subjects I began to read was comparative religions, which widened my worldview considerably. Being on my own and then marrying young to a less observant Jew in New York City, I was wildly enthusiastic to experience the new world of ideas, culture and pleasures that an urban environment offered. I became distanced from the religious observance in my European parents' conservative-tending-toward orthodox home, although I was never estranged from the tradition. However, my father, a European trained cantor, noticed that when I visited home and went to his synagogue, I backed away from touching my prayer book to the Torah, during the procession down the aisle.

He asked me why, and I confessed that I felt tainted, somehow not pure enough, now that I was living my freer life, to touch the Torah. He then counseled me -- may his memory always be a blessing -- that the Torah radiated holiness. I could not taint the Torah. Just the opposite. It was the Torah that would touch me. Reaching out to it, was reaching out to its holiness.

From my childhood then emerged a memory that has never left. It's etched into my soul. Standing near Father at the bima, thinking myself ignored, when suddenly Father's hand reaches out to my shoulder and gently gathers me closer to his side as he lifts over our heads the huge black and white Talit that he, a Holocaust survivor, had brought with him out of Europe, creating a tent above us. As he chants the Amidah, I study the specs of dust dancing above me in the yellowish light filtering through the Talit. I feel the warmth of my father's breath and am mesmerized by the gentle murmur of his chant as we sway together.

It is a rarified moment in an elevated universe.

As Saul Bellow has his protagonist sorrowing in his great novel "Mr. Sammler's Planet," man has become an explaining creature. There are many rational explanations for the powerful effect this experience has had on me all my life. A sociologist might well call it personal myth making. A psychologist might see in it a child's need for magic and hero worship. A religious person, certainly a religious Christian, might call it an epiphany. I expect Pascal would repeat that "the heart has its reasons, reason knows not of."

Me? I give it no name. It is, what it was.

That happened well over 50 years ago. My father has long been gathered back to his fathers, and still and always, the Hebrew synagogue liturgy sings to me in my father's voice.

    Still and Always

    When I rise for the Amidah,

    the tent of his Talit shelters me.

    I do not rise alone.

    When the Torah approaches,

    it is my father's hand that nudges mine,

    forward and upward to Torah.

    And, for a fleeting moment,

    I am whole,

    in a broken world.

Annette Keen is a freelance writer in Niskayuna, New York

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from the February 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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