A Synagogue Story
Joe dashed along the street, his prize grasped tightly in his young fist. He heard the heavy footsteps of the shopkeeper running behind him and ran faster. He had no conscious idea of where he was going, but quickly made for the narrowness of Artillery Passage, ahead of him, before making a swift turn into Sandy's Row in an attempt to lose his pursuer.
As he came around the corner into Sandy's Row he was faced with a familiar blue door, which he quickly identified as the entry to his family's synagogue. Joe always went reluctantly to worship, and as such never made much note of the building's whereabouts amidst the East End alleyways, as he just trudged along behind his parents, begrudgingly looking at his feet and wishing he could be off playing football with his friends instead.
On seeing this big blue entrance during his on foot escape from the ornery fruit stall owner, he was immediately flushed with the idea that this might be a refuge for him; he would just slip inside the door and let the fruit seller run past unaware.
He ran headlong for the door, shoved his shoulder against it, turned the handle with the hand not grasping the apple, and gratifyingly felt the door swing inwards under his slight weight. He scampered in, turning hurriedly to close the entrance behind him and shut himself off from the alleyway.
The door shut with a bang, and Joe rested his back against the inside, breathing hard until he caught his breath. He knew he should peek back outside for a report on his assailant, but upon entering the synagogue a tangible sense of calm and safety had settled upon him. Rather than look back outside the door he took in what was before him.
He was in the small anteroom with a flight of stairs, up which the worshippers procession would march to reach the inner chamber, where the day's prayers were given. The silence of the hall at the top of the stairs pervaded the small entranceway, and had blanketed Joe in calm as soon as he'd arrived. Now feeling safe and at rest, Joe pocketed the apple and showed deference to his surroundings and the sanctity it had brought him by donning one of the caps left in a pile by the entrance. He then proceeded into the main part of the synagogue.
Usually when he came to the synagogue with his parents they filed in slowly in bunches, and Joe could not really appreciate his surroundings as his view was blocked by the taller adults all around him. On this occasion Joe took in for the first time the true grandiosity of the fairly compact worship area as he proceeded slowly into the synagogue's main cloisters.
The silence that he had sensed in the entrance now engulfed him. Even thought the room he inhabited was tightly squeezed between streams of pedestrians, the bustling streets and alleys seemed completely disconnected from the placidity of the holy space.
Joe came further forward into the synagogue and approached the Bimah, appreciating for the first time its bold and stark construction; its ability to frame and levitate the main worship giver into the centre of the building where all eyes, ears and mouths can make connection to them, as they are conduits for the Lord. Often when sitting in services alongside his parents, pretending to pray, he had daydreamed about running up onto the Bimah to interrupt proceedings with an immature arm-fart or a stored-up belch. Then he imagined the bearded, wrinkled, serious faces all around him and what kind of expressions he could make their imperious features crack into.
Alone on this occasion he did not dare to climb up to this central position, as he had often fantasised. In seeing the Bimah’s blessed starkness in the centre of the huddled seating, both above and below, he truly understood the importance and respect that must be paid to anyone deemed worthy of speaking from such a position.
Instead Joe walked around to the far end of the synagogue, towards the ark, where there were large slabs covered in Hebrew writings. Joe knew that these words came from the Torah, but he had no idea what they, or any of the many examples of the language on show, meant. His slow approach towards the ark allowed him more time to discern the individual characters than he had ever allowed for before. In this newfound concentration he discovered for the first time that he truly grasped that these strange squiggly shapes were the messages from religious men of another time. He understood that they were thousands of years old, passed down through centuries in a language imbued with history and importance. At first Joe found this new understanding intriguing and magnetic, but upon remembering the dismissive way he had applied himself to his parents’ abortive Hebrew lessons, he ashamedly ducked his head and span on his heel to put the oppressive scripture out of sight.
Upon turning he noticed the empty upper-level of the synagogue’s seating, and realised with glee that today was finally the day he was going to go up there. The upstairs is reserved for the female worshippers, but Joe had always wanted to go up there because he felt he’d be less observable by the unamused eyes of the men. Simultaneously, he imagined, he’d have a better view of their comically serious faces deep in barely-whispered worship. However, his mother and father told him in no uncertain terms that he must behave properly in the synagogue and sit in his rightful place, downstairs among the men.
Joe stole up the padded stairs, his feet barely making a sound in the thick carpet, despite his excited urgency. When he reached the upper floor he immediately made to edge down the back row of seats, until he was in line with the Bimah below. Joe’s first impression was that he felt more cramped than where he normally sat, and if that were the case for a pre-pubescent boy, it couldn’t have been particularly comfortable for the full-grown women sitting there regularly for over an hour. On the other hand, the windows on either side at the top of the chamber let in a little natural light and alleviated the stifling seriousness Joe often felt in the downstairs.
He imagined watching from this elevated viewpoint. In his mind he could hear the impassioned chanting of the men below, gracefully fluttering up into the higher reaches, and gliding across the glistening beams that cut their way through the top windows into the dusty atmosphere. He looked down upon where he might normally see the rows of impassioned worshippers, focused on the rabbi in the middle, or eyes-down in private prayer.
As his eyes skipped from seat to seat, something suddenly caught his eye. There was something slightly moving in the back row below. Joe flicked his eyes back to where he had seen the slight flutter that caught his eye. At first he saw nothing, but he kept his vision fixated on the spot for a moment, and sure enough he saw it again! Some subtle movement in the back row, just peeking out, over the top of the pew in front, and then sneaking back below his line of sight again. He stayed fixed on the spot and again saw the amorphous shape rise and fall behind the penultimate pew. Joe stayed frozen in place. He wasn’t sure what he was seeing, but he had a suspicion. Slowly and carefully he rose to his feet to gain a better view of the movement in the back row.
Then he saw him: the rabbi asleep in the back row! As soon as he noticed what he was seeing Joe dropped like a brick to the ground, hiding behind the row in front of him. After a moment to collect his thoughts, Joe sensed that the rabbi hadn’t moved, so he stood up, crept down to the edge of the balcony and peered over the edge to look closely at the sleeping preacher.
He was lying flat with his feet across several seats, snoozing contentedly, his large barrel chest rising and falling with lungfuls of dusty air. Joe, normally afraid of the stern and unsmiling rabbi, found the scene most amusing. Not only was the rabbi completely harmless in such a situation, but he actually looked happy! A smile seemed to be stretching across his face as if he were in the middle of an amusing dream. The thought of the rabbi dreaming happy dreams amused Joe and he had to stop himself giggling.
Before Joe could get caught, in a place where he certainly wasn’t supposed to be, hiding an apple he certainly hadn’t paid for, he decided he’d better leave. He scampered back down the carpeted stairs, taking a little more care on this occasion despite their muting thickness. At the bottom of the stairs he quickly peered back into the main synagogue for one last look at the sleeping rabbi. He also took an admiring look along the length of the synagogue, taking in the Bimah, the ark, the Hebrew and the room’s history.
He descended the small set of stone stairs in the entryway and placed the borrowed cap back on the pile by the entrance. He silently opened the door, walked out into Sandy’s Row, and carefully closed the exit behind him. He assimilated himself with the pedestrians bustling through the alleys, and headed in the direction of home. He patted the pocket where he had put the apple, then pulled it out to have a look as he strode along. He had envisioned himself munching it contentedly on his triumphant walk back into his street, demonstrating to the other boys his bravery and irreverence. Thinking about that scene now, it didn’t appeal to him as much anymore. All of this showmanship for his friends seemed quite meaningless to him now.
Instead he placed the apple back in his pocket, and strolled on casually, back to his house where he hoped he’d find his sister to share it with him