|February Purim 1999|
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The Rabbi's Assistant
By Aryeh KatzI worked, for a time, in a small town in rural Florida. I was now seeing myself, for the first time, as a "Jew", though I knew little of what that really meant. When Rosh Hashana approached, I decided that as a Jew, I ought to do something religiously appropriate. I knew not what Jews were supposed to do on such days other than to go to some type of services at a Temple or Synagogue.
The area where I lived had no Temple or Synagogue of it's own.
There were enough interested Jews in the area to rent out a town
community center and bring in a Rabbi from a nearby larger community.
I had no idea what the services would be like, but I showed up,
as I felt it was now my duty.
I was surprised to see how many other people showed up for the
services. Apparently there were more Jews here than I had suspected.
I was comforted to see so many others "coming out of the
woodwork". Though we were strangers, there was an unmistakeable
feeling of kinship between us. The services began, and I did
my best to read along in the english prayer book. Everything
was unfamiliar to me, and I tried to make what sense of it that
The visiting Rabbi was rather uninspiring. He seemed to do little
other than to sit there trying to look important. What I recall
most was the Rabbis assistant, whom I'll call Mr. Phillips. He
was remarkable. Although I'm willing to bet that Mr. Phillips
saw little of the Rabbi's paycheck, he easily performed the bulk
of the work.
Mr. Phillips led the Rosh Hashanah services in a faithful if rather
mechanical manner. There were no snide comments or bad speeches
from Mr. Phillips. The only thing that might have been objectionable,
the peculiar squeaks he periodically emitted, were entirely forgiveable
when one considered his age. "Mr. Phillips", you see,
was a portable cassette player that the Rabbi had brought along.
Along with the tape player, the Rabbi brought some tapes of the
Rosh Hashanah services, complete with chazanut (cantorial),
and, the grand highlight, as I'll shortly explain.
The congregation sat quietly, and respectfully, through most of
the services, listening to "Mr. Phillips", interspersed
by short comments, and an occasional speech from the Rabbi. So
this was how Jews prayed on Rosh Hashanah. I was not impressed.
Overall, I found the services quite confusing and unsatisfying.
The biggest challenge, aside from staying awake, was deciding
where to look. Apart from the tape player, there was no clear
central focus. It was awkward to stare at the tape player for
too long. The prayer book was boring. The Rabbi and the other
congregants were more interesting to look at, but even that grew
tiresome. Many of the other congregants seemed to be having the
same problem. Some solved it by closing their eyes - or were
they sleeping? I couldn't tell.
The most memorable part of the experience for me came near the
end of the services. Acting on some type of queue, the Rabbi
rose from his seat, removed the tape of cantorial singing, and
inserted a new tape. The suspense seemed to build. Everybody
was sitting quietly in expectation for something. What would it
be? An inspiring sermon? A special prayer? The tape player
droned on, squeaked, and then finally emitted a high-pitched,
piercing sound somewhat reminiscent of a poorly-played french
horn. The sound continued, on and off, for a few moments. Now
I was totally lost - I had no idea what this was, or why I was
hearing it. I looked around at the other congregants, hoping
for a clue. Nobody else looked startled or confused by the strange
sounds. I decided that this must be a normal part of the services,
and sat there quietly, trying to mask my bewilderment.
The services concluded, and people cordially wished each other
a happy new year. There were a lot of handshakes and pleasant
smiles, and then everybody went their separate ways. The Rabbi
and "Mr. Phillips" were still there when I left, perhaps
lingering behind to discuss the performance. I walked out into
the intense September sunshine, assuming that whatever a Jew was
supposed to do on Rosh Hashanah, I had just done it. Now it was
time to get back to other business.
Soon afterwards, I forgot about the whole experience. I had a
myriad of other interests in my life at the time. Judaism still
took a back seat.
Two years later, when Rosh Hashana came around, I was in Israel
learning on a yeshiva. I had already been there for several months,
and was becoming familiar with Jewish custom and ritual. Still,
it wasn't until the Rosh Hashana services, while seeing and hearing
the shofar being blown, that I remembered those strange sounds
I had heard on tape two years back. Finally I realized what they
were supposed to be.
With all due respect to "Mr. Phillips", the taped rendition
just wasn't the same thing.
from theFebruary Purim 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine