Avi Rockoff

Fitting In

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The first time you lead the service at a new shul, you want to show that you know what you’re doing, that you fit in.

A man who knows what he is doing in an Ashkenazi shul is called a rogilRogil is the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew word ragil, “regular.” The Mishna says that a prayer leader at a fast for a national calamity should be zaken v’ragil, old and experienced.

A rogil knows what to say and how to say it.  Those in the know can tell at once who does not, someone who trips over words, hesitates, says the wrong thing.

Leading Shacharit on my first day in a new shul, I sensed a pitfall ahead.  The closing words of the paragraph preceding Shema say: V’keravtanu l’shimcha hagadol, and You have brought us close to Your great Name, Selah be’emet. Those last two words are tricky.

Selah is familiar, though no one knows what it means, perhaps some forgotten musical instruction.  But one thing is sure: Selah ends what precedes it. What follows is a full stop.  Ashrei yoshvei vetecha, fortunate are those who dwell in Your house, od yehalleluchah Selah.  Selah.  Period.  Full stop.  Always.

Except here, right before Shema.

I know this, because I am a rogil.

* * *

Most people want to fit in.  They do not wish to stand out, to be looked on as outsiders who don’t belong.  Shul is hardly the only place where this is true.

Everywhere, strangers don’t fit.  They speak with an accent, or don’t know the way things work.  Insiders notice at once.

Professions speak in jargons, sub-professions in sub-jargons. Outsiders trying to pass are outed in an instant, eliciting shrugs and eye-rolls from those in the know.

It must be vital to our species to tell who does not belong, or else our antennae for doing it would not be so exquisitely calibrated.  I happen to hang out in shuls.  There as elsewhere, regulars are quick to tell who is a rogil and who is not, and to share their insight, often with vigor and in full voice.

* * *

I learned this specific lesson—about Selah be’emet–in Lakewood, New Jersey.  Not today’s Lakewood, with its sprawling yeshiva community.  There was once a very different Lakewood, now twice-forgotten, where wealthy folk from New York and Philadelphia summered.  The Laurel in the Pines Hotel was opened in 1891.  It catered to the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt and Lady Astor, leader of “The Four Hundred,” New York’s finest families.  Were you to invite to your party people numbered 401 or higher, you might find yourself dancing with those “not at ease in a ballroom.”  (WASPs knew who was not a rogil in their world, and the proper way to shun them.)

By the time my parents and I got to a Lakewood hotel in 1963, the tony set had long since moved on, and the Laurel in the Pines was kosher.  The social descent from Vanderbilts to Mandelbaums had been steep.  We stayed at the Brunswick.

My parents were 46 and 42 that year.  I was 16, a junior in high school.  We came for a couple of days just before the New Year.  After checking in, we went for a buggy ride in the woods.  The driver threw a thick, ratty blanket over us, and we clip-clopped through the crisp air.

My parents’ companions were another rabbinical couple.   Dad’s colleague was a fastidious man with a sardonic expression.  At meals he would, for no reason, burst into song, Eydie Gorme’s current hit, Blame it on the Bossa Nova:

Blame it on the bossa nova, with its magic spell

Blame it on the bossa nova, that he did so well

This rabbi wore a hairpiece, perfectly aligned, with the help of a fine mesh grid that was – almost — invisible.

The next morning my father and I davened shacharit together.  The hotel had set aside a room on the ground floor as a chapel, with an ark and siddurim.  The two of us were alone.

I did not have many role-models for leading public services, since I mostly davened by myself. On weekdays I stayed with my grandparents in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. From there I took the subway up to Washington Heights for high school.  Mornings I davened while leaning on the tin cover of the radiator in the dining room for warmth, watching flocks of starlings wheel in aimless, rippling waves over a landscape of rusted fire escapes and tarred roofs.

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When I was home, my father tutored me.  Because his shul lacked a regular evening minyan, I often played the role of shaliach tzibbur in our dining room, under rabbinical supervision.

We did likewise for shacharit that morning in the hotel chapel.  When we reached the paragraph before Kriyat Shema, I started to say my part out loud, getting to v’keravtanu l’shimcha hagadol–Selah

Dad stopped me.  “No,” he said.  “You don’t say it like that.”

“Like what?”

“You don’t stop after Selah.  You say “Selah be’emet” together.  Then you continue.”

I did not ask him why.  When you are a kid, rules are rules, to be learned and followed.

My father was a warm and energetic man, but he was not one to reflect and explain.  I could have asked him why you said it that way, why it was so important to him that I say it just right, that I be this kind of rogil, regular.  But at 16, I lacked both the maturity to formulate the question and the nerve to ask it.

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As we stream along, the numberless fragments that make up our lives are swamped into abrupt oblivion in our receding wake.  Now and then—who knows why?—one of them bobs up into memory.  For me, that morning in Lakewood has been a memory that reappears, summoning a vivid image: my dad and me, alone together in a small hotel chapel in central New Jersey, with the wan morning light of the winter solstice diffusing through frosted panes.

The lesson of Selah be’emet.  Among all the forgotten moments, this one somehow pops up from time to time into mind, yoked to scenes of a buggy ride under a ratty blanket, of a finicky rabbi with a sardonic expression, who sang of romance:

Oh it all began with just one little dance

But soon it ended up a big romance

Blame it on the bossa nova, the dance of love 

* * *

In ways I could not have imagined at the time, the training to be a rogil that my father gave me, some of it that winter morning, has turned out to be helpful, even central, to my life. It gave me a way to fit in and a setting to do it in, a place that friends and community found useful to their own lives.  Perhaps my father was wise and prescient.  Perhaps I shaped my life to make sure he was both.  Who can know? We pass this way once.

All parents want their children to succeed.  At the least, parental success means helping children fit in, somewhere.  The children may pick different circles to fit into from the ones their parents intended.  Perhaps no parental failure is more poignant than raising a child who fits nowhere at all.

A few of the memory fragments we retain or retrieve feel pivotal, at least on reflection.  Recalling them may evoke pride, wonder, appreciation, love.  Such feelings cry out to be acknowledged, directly, with those who made the difference. Yet by the time we figure things out, doing so in person may no longer be possible.

Finding the right time to thank people is hard. It may somehow always seem too early, too late, too busy, too fraught, too awkward, too intense.  Not now.  Another time.  Surely there will be another time.

If I could, I would tell my father how, looking back, his advice has turned out to be more helpful for my fitting into my family and my world than either of us could have foreseen. But it took me so long to work this out that the time to say so in person has long passed.

I suspect that if I told him, Dad would shake his head, and wave off my thanks. Dad was a man of action who liked to do things, many of them notable. He preferred doing to reflecting.

Still, I would like to think that if I told him, even if he did not admit it, he would be pleased.

Yes, I am sure that he would.

Selah.  Full stop.

Be’emet.  Really.

* * *

לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי הרב יצחק יעקב בן משולם פייוועל ועלקע ציפע שנפטר יום ל’ לחודש אדר א’ תשס”ד.

 יהא זכרו ברוך.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff came on aliyah with his wife Shuli in March 2022. They live in Jerusalem. His new book, This Year in Jerusalem: Aliyah Dispatches, has been recently published by Shikey Press.
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