When my father took a Long Island pulpit in 1953, he found a few things that came with the job. One of them was Hyman.

Outside of shul, Hyman was a dentist. As a youth early in the last century, he had evidently been a choirboy in some New York synagogue who yearned to be a soloist. Later in life, he got his chance. Every year, whichever third-rate cantor the board hired for the High Holidays had to stand silent and bite his lips while Hyman delivered his solos.

Hyman dressed and acted his chosen part. He wore a high black yarmulke, antique even then. He also affected the mannerisms of the hazzanim of his youth: skyward gaze, contorted face, mushy diction.  His “V’chol ma’mimim shehu v’en bilto” sounded like this:

She yeHU
She yeHU
V’eyne billi toe
She yeHU
V’eyne billi TOE!
She yeHU
She yeHU
V’eyne billi toe
She yeHU
V’eyne billi TOE!  

Naturally, my family and I always referred to this bit as “Billy’s Toe.”

A little later in the davening, Hyman did his second set piece, on the beautiful words, “Haven yakir li Efraim im yeled sha’ashuim.” Only, when Hyman sang them the last phrase came out:

I wim yeled
Sha sha
I wim yeled
Sha! Sha!
I wim yeled
SHA! SHA!
Sha wa wa wa wa wa shawashuwuyim!

We naturally referred to this as “Yeled Sha!” While Hyman would take it from the top again, from “I wim yeled sha! Sha!” we shook with barely suppressed mirth, trying hard to stifle to urge to call out, “Sha, yourself!”

For a long while our nuclear family remembered “Billy’s Toe” and “Yeled Sha” as essential parts of our High Holiday experience. Their annual reappearance was at once comforting and totally absurd, as though the moon had passed overhead every night and stuck its tongue out at us.  But over time these recollections faded, as recollections do.

The High Holidays, with their autumnal timing, their symbols and solemnity, always unleash a flood of memories. These rush in unbidden, higgledy-piggledy: thoughts of places we used to be but now hardly recall, of people once with us but no longer here, of family members formerly close and now dispersed, of plans half-formed but abandoned — when could that have been? At times these memories call up images so vivid that you want to reach out and hold on to them, though of course they dissolve and disappear when you try, as in dreams.

Sharing memories is tricky, since conveying them always shears away their original context. Hyman, too, had a recollection that circumstances let him share, though the impression it left may not have been quite what he had in mind.

Thus conveyed and modified, Hyman’s sliver of childhood memory became part of mine. There it stays, stored as flickering neural traces of an odd quirk in an out-of-the-way congregation long defunct and replaced by a Chabad center with its own weekly radio show and no institutional memory of anything that came before. I rarely think of “Billy’s Toe” or “Yeled Sha” anymore, though they do sometimes come to mind during the quiet stretches of hazarat hashatz, an old in-joke with no one to share it with.

Hyman was still at it when I grew up and moved away. Some years later, now retired from dentistry, he wandered into the shul office one summer morning and startled my father’s secretary by insisting that it was Rosh Hashanah. His disorientation turned out to be caused by a brain tumor, and he passed away soon after.

Poor Hyman. When I do still think of him, along with other fading images that reappear this time of year, “zahor ezkerenu od.”

The opinions, facts and any media content here are presented solely by the author, and The Times of Israel assumes no responsibility for them. In case of abuse, report this post.