I grew up in Queens, NY and my family belonged to the Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills, a large Conservative synagogue with a prominent Rabbi, I. Usher Kirschblum and famous cantors. However, my family spent the holidays with my maternal grandparents at a Galitizianer shul in East NY, Brooklyn. I wrote about the experience of holidays at the Berriman Street Shul here.
The past few years I attended Chabad of Port Washington for high holiday services. I was first introduced to the shul taking my granddaughters to the fabulous preschool program run by the charming Rebbetzin Sara Paltiel. She and her husband Rabbi Shalom Paltiel have developed a very warm and welcoming environment and I really enjoy the services there. The Rabbi humorously describes his services as being in an Orthodox shul, with a Conservative style service, and a Reform congregation officiated by a Rabbi who looks like Fiddler on the Roof.
I was therefore thrilled when I read that the shul was erecting a tent for limited seating at a social distance, and all worshipers would be temperature checked and masked. I rsvp’d that I would attend and was looking forward to it. A few days before Rosh Hashanah I received a call from my son saying that he and my daughter were dead set against me taking the risk of going to services. He outlined several thoughtful reasons and I reluctantly agreed. I guess I am at the age (68) now where I need to listen to my kids.
Thus, I entered the virtual world of holiday services. For Rosh Hashanah I found out that my old synagogue, Temple Israel of Great Neck was streaming their services. I enjoyed listening to the familiar voice of Cantor Raphael Frieder. It still was hard for me to get used to it. As someone who is a big fan of the high holiday nusach I truly enjoyed the Baal Shacharit a young man named Simon who had a beautiful sweet voice and perfectly chanted the prayers with the endearing melodies. He blended so well with Rabbi Stecker and I have to say the two of them together were my favorite part of the service.
Still this process was something that I had a hard time getting used to. I was watching on my laptop and it was just difficult to get into the spirit of the service. The part I missed the most was not being able to listen to the congregational singing. I particularly noticed this during the Hayom prayer where everyone would normally be belting out the ha ah ah ah yom hayom hayom refrain. The Cantor tried his best but it just didn’t do it for me. I found it particularly awkward to stand and sit when indicated. Eventually I just decided to stay seated.
The Torah reading and the shofar blowing was weird being directed to different peoples houses for the various aliyas and readings. I really don’t understand why they couldn’t do that in the sanctuary and just go to the houses for the blessings.
So telling my son of the qualms I had with the virtual service he told me that I should for Yom Kippur watch it through YouTube on my big screen television. Good idea I thought. I will give it a try.
That is how I turned into a Yom Kippur couch potato. It felt very different eating the prefast meal without constantly checking my watch for when we had to leave to be in time for Kol Nidrei. My cousins are usually with us for that meal but it was just my wife and me. I insisted on eating in the dining room to make it feel more like it was a holiday meal. I stuffed my face calmly, my wife benched licht and we lit the memorial lamps. I was still in my shorts as I sat down in my living on my recliner and put my tv on the YouTube channel. This felt weird also because I grew up in a house where we did not put the TV on on Yom Kippur nor did we turn lights on and off. Well that wouldn’t have worked for me this year.
My son was right. It was different watching the services on the big screen. As someone who put on my social media post during the day this famous scene from the Yiddish movie Overture to Glory of Moyshe Oysher singing Kol Nidrei and loving the setting of the candlelit shuls from the old country my system was in for a shock. I started to channel surf and found the streaming services of the Park Avenue Synagogue.
Let me tell you this synagogue is nothing like the candlelit synagogue of the Yiddish movie. I was mesmerized by the opulence and splendor of the sanctuary. This synagogue has the best looking clergy I have ever seen with Cantors Azi Schwartz, Rachel Brook and Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove (whose blue eyes my wife did not fail to notice). Now I am a traditionalist. I love old time chazzanut with old time melodies. Synagogues with organs really bother me. Well this synagogue did not have an organ. It had a full symphony orchestra socially distanced with masks sitting where the congregants normally would be. There were so many violinists I couldn’t even count how many there were.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove Cantor Azi Schwartz (https://pasyn.org/)
This was a bit too much for me so I switched back to the Great Neck synagogue (which is not a poor synagogue by any means but not quite Park Avenue) and watched the Kol Nidrei service. The Maariv service of Yom Kippur is my favorite service of the year. I just love the melodies. Not quite the oy – oy – oys of the Baal Tephilas of Berriman Street but enjoyable nevertheless. Cantor Frieder teamed up very well with Associate Rabbi Schweber who does not quite have the blue eyes of Park Avenue and if you ask me looks a bit like George Constanza. The service was very nice and I did sing along at times but again I very much missed hearing the congregation sing together.
After Great Neck finished I switched the channel back to Park Avenue which was still going on. Cantor Schwartz is one of the pre-eminent cantors of our day and he does not disappoint even though I had to get used to him looking at the camera as if he was in a performance rather than in a shul davening. The Shema Koleinu was impressive but not quite close to my all time favorite version that you can see here. It was lacking in the ferocity of the seniors in the Berriman St shul of my youth (of which now I am the same age) asking G-d not to forsake them in their old age but it was good.
Soon they got to Aveinu Malkeinu and all I could say was wow! The cantors started out with the Janowski version famously sung by Barbra Streisand and I was enchanted. Their voices harmonized beautifully. I felt like I was watching a concert not quite participating in a shul service. The final verse of the prayer was sung in the traditional tune that if I have to rate is probably my favorite synagogue tune and I found myself singing along to my great pleasure. It was extremely moving.
The next morning it felt weird to put on shorts and not put on synagogue clothes. I headed to my recliner. I put on Great Neck and enjoyed again the team of Rabbi Seckler and the Baal Tephilah Simon who I can’t praise enough for how perfectly he chants the nusach of the high holidays. Berriman Street would have loved him although it would have taken them a while to get used to his Sephardic accent in a Galitzianer shul. I switched for a short while to Park Avenue to check out their Shacharit but I was disappointed to see the service in what looked like a chapel with an unfamiliar rabbi and cantor team. Sorry, no offense, but it looked like I was watching the Junior Varsity. I returned to Great Neck and finished Shacharit there with my new buddy Simon.
After torah reading which I don’t think I will ever get used to virtually, I was ready for Yizkor which I participated with in the Great Neck stream. Park Avenue was doing Yizkor at 1PM after musaf. Like I said, I am a traditionalist and in my eyes Yizkor should be said when it is supposed to be said and not moved around for higher ratings. It was indeed a strange Yizkor to be reciting the prayers at home and it was particularly emotional for me to be saying the part for my mother still soon after her death last year but such is life and remembrance in the age of a pandemic.
I watched Great Neck for the beginning of Musaf. I am used to their services having been a member for many years but halfway through I switched to Park Avenue. I was getting used to the glitz of their service. The Avodah portion of Musaf was very dramatic how the clergy prostrated themselves. I always enjoy a good sermon being spoiled by the great orators of Rabbi Kirschblum of my youth and the late, great Rabbi Mordechai Waxman of Temple Israel of Great Neck. I figure let me give old blue eyes of Park Avenue a shot. I was thrilled to hear his theme of Jewish rituals against pandemics.
This was perfect for me because I just finished interviewing the renowned historian Omer Bartov discussing his new book Voices on War and Genocide for the Gesher Galicia webinar series. In it, there is a segment of a Catholic Pole passing the Jewish cemetery in Buchach, Galicia and seeing the ritual of the Shvartze Chasseneh being performed during a cholera epidemic. You can see the interview here but you have to be a member of Gesher Galicia to log in. There was even an article recently in the New York Times about a Shvartze Chasseneh in NY City during the Spanish Flu pandemic.
This is a ceremony where the community finds two poor orphans and makes a shidduch between them and dresses them all in black to get married under a chuppah in a cemetery. All to break the plague. Here I have to correct Rabbi Cosgrove. He said in his sermon that he has no idea how these couples eventually ended up. Well Rabbi I have to introduce you to my friends like Jennifer Mendelsohn of Resistance Genealogy fame who did awesome genealogy research after that article appeared and found out that the couple actually did not make it a long time together.
I found myself getting more and more used to Park Avenue. After all, what’s not to like? I found even their honoree for Maftir Yonah did an excellent job of chanting the famous haftorah. Most shuls usually give this honor to a large donor without much regard for the skill of chanting but I was very impressed by this rendition and of course being Park Avenue there was him and his attractive family in the background on Zoom.
For the actual Mincha service Park Avenue returned to the JV team in the chapel and I returned to my favorite Baal Tephila in Great Neck. It felt a little bit like me sitting in front of my TV on a fall Sunday switching back and forth between two football games. Mincha finished and now was time for Neilah. I turned to Park Avenue and my gosh did they ever deliver a powerful service. Normally, this is not my favorite service because you are hungry and you have to stand the whole time while the ark is open. Well, in my house and with a certain condition I have in my feet I did not feel the need to stand and I have to tell you that although I was still hungry it’s a lot different watching Neilah on my big screen television while in my shorts and lying on my comfortable recliner.
The Park Avenue Neilah service was absolutely spectacular. The Cantors were at the peak of their game and their harmonizing was magnificent. The professional camerawork showed the grand nature of the gorgeous synagogue. Arriving at the ultimate Aveinu Malkeinu asking to be sealed in the book of life was beyond words. My wife and I felt like we were transported to another dimension. It literally felt like we could feel the gates closing. The Shema and the seven repetitions of Adoshem hu Elokim were unusually dramatic. Again Park Avenue being Park Avenue the children of the Rabbi and Cantor joined their fathers on the bimah for havdalah and of course they were adorable. The rabbi’s kids called tekiah gedolah and the Rabbi and several others on Zoom blew the shofar ending the service.
That’s it. I was hooked. This whole day and the Neilah service really got to me. I would not trade this for being able to actually be in the synagogue but this was the next best thing. I would still take the Berriman Street Shul davening over anywhere else but this was rewarding, meaningful and inspiring in its own unique way.
Leshanah habah in our synagogues.
A gut yor as they would have said in Galicia and and a Chag Sukkot Sameach.