Wedding Adventures at the New York Portugese Synagogue

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      I'm looking around at the Berman-Marrache wedding in New York City. My niece Laura Berman is marrying Solly Marrache, orthodox jew from Gibraltar and our small family is thrilled to be joining Solly's huge one in NYC for the wedding.

      Where? Shearith Israel, the Spanish/Portugese synagogue on 70th Street and Central Park West - the oldest synagogue in America, founded by jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition, coming soon after to New York to work in the mills and in 1654 to found this congregation. Mystic, music, oriental, it's stepping into an unfamiliar but moving world to attend the Friday night service.

      Barely a minion without the wedding party, who outnumber the regulars at the synagogue, voices echo from vaulted ceilings of a building whose interior looks similar to the ancient Bayswater synagogue in London where great granpa Denekamp was a cantor. Marble columns, wide open center with raised pulpit for the rabbis who, on the plaques remembering their predecessors, are called ministers; funny hats remind me of the greek orthodox priest caps, round, with vertical sides that slope outwards from the head--a perfect fit for those afro 'do's if anyone here were black and had big hair. Outside other certificates are strategically displayed, noting the congregations's more contemporary assistance to rescue efforts for the Ethiopian Jews and their provision of safe housing for the homeless. Historic marker comments on classic neo-classic architecture, less a concern to us Jews than neo-modern genocide.

      Sabbath reflections.

      On the Palisades parkway I don't stop to photograph the second car fire I've seen in a month. The driver is waiting with the fire truck, letting the car burn. He doesn't want it back. The smoke was better last time.

      Entering the city, turning left off of the southbound West Side highway I see another, smaller fire, in a tiny park, and no fire truck - bums, I mean homeless individuals, one seated on a bench, leaning forward in rapt attention as his friend gestures wildly and shouts his conversation, lost in the traffic noise.

      On to the old-posh-but-not-pretentious, french hotel Le Parker Meridien where obvious Anglos greet you at the desk with perfect French accents. Up to the 12th floor, the view is of rooftops with grass growing in clumps where birds shat in roof-cracks; it's as if no one is supposed to see those ugly rooftops but from every high building we can look down on junk left by maintenance crews who thought no one could ever see.

      From Mom's 29th floor, there is a shocking sight, as looking north we peer down into a lush carpet of green treetops, brilliant in the late afternoon magic-sun, the Southern end of Central Park - and you can see how remarkable is this green island amidst towering stone and steel, and tarry rooftops with idle clumps of grass, busted ladders, scrap lumber, and pigeonshit.

      Laura and Solly are here somewhere, but it's not yet family-time, and I need to eat or die. I remember Linda and Irv's Hansen-cab honeymoon at this same park years back, and how Leslie and I took all the "unused" liquor bottles out of the hotel until Dad had to buy them back from us - as he was being charged by the shot - about $200. per bottle!

      Walk to a coffee shop on 7th Avenue, the Park Cafe, for late lunch, feta cheese and chopped tomatos in omlet, the service is too fast and the coffee cup is just too cute, a little one with pink flowers, when I realize the cleverness of small coffee cups - probably a 50% reduction in their coffee bill, and I wait the entire meal before catching the waitress for a refill. But things have improved in New York City - and you get a glass of water without asking.

      I eavesdrop. Woman telling her friend, a guy, not a lover, "... because he's abusive, he gives her shit, I can tell ... as long as she knows what her job description is ... he'll type it out for her... I'm trying to make me a priority right now, I'm gonna boom, I'm going to make all those meetings, what I need right now is to make me a priority, that'll help me help you..." I tune my ear back to the feta.

      They leave. The next conversation, between two women is exciting and, pretending to read my Anthony Trollope, I strain to hear: "... so she showed me the membership card for this health club, you know, not as scuzzy as a one, maybe it's a five, and I see that it's just a handwritten card with no photo and no real ID, so .... and I go there and there's this big room, packed with ..... and they're all sweating and the equipment is sweaty, and ... I had no business ... so I was nearly blacking out, I was on the verge of ... I could have puked, I was about to puke, but I didn't puke ..."

      I stop eating the feta. I push away the plate. I am saved by the coffee.

      "... but I didn't... and I had to get off and sit with my head between my knees for maybe five minutes, there's this room full of people and no one is paying any attention, and I might be dying - well maybe someone across the room but no so I could notice, and there's this woman, I mean right next to me on another bicycle, and she's just peddling like mad while I'm sitting there puking, ... and I'm sitting there thinking - well if I goddam die here it'll be a mess because I'm here under an alias and they'll notify the wrong next of kin..."

      Walking along and in Central Park, to the synagogue:

      Roller blades have become real transportation. Mostly men, moving faster than the cars, beaten only by the messenger bikes, who have higher gears. I am impressed. The roller blade wheels are totally silent, and here the pavement is smooth and the skaters seem to glide fast, silently, and effortless, and I wonder, when they stop, the roller blade'ers, how do they chain their roller-blades up to the l & ost?

      I walk in the edge of the park, and a woman with two kids asks me which way to Tavern on the Green, and we're at about 72nd Street so, consulting my handy-dandy Parker Meridien Tourist Map, I point South and her little girl wants to dash out into the street and I say "hey little girl, you better go with your momma" and huge eyes burn into me, then she whirls and runs after her mother and her little brother.

      It's muddy and I'm in my black pinstripe suit and shiny shoes so I walk to the next exit back towards Central Park West, and as I walk through this vine-covered arbor I think how lovely to find this in such a big city, and I think what a good place it would be for a mugging, and a woman enters the arbor from the other end, walking towards me in near darkness, and I see a furtive shadow flicker off behind and to her right... Suddenly full-battle-alert, I stare more closely: it's a homeless person, big, really fat, and he's walked into the bushes and is walking parallel to the covered pathway, and he's peeing as he walks, just peeing right in front of himself. Peeing continuously as right straight out in front of himself - no hands!

      I'm out of the park and looking for a bench along the street. There are newspapers on this one, slept-on, and the pee smell is too strong. I walk South. And sit where the pee smell is just mild and I wonder if it's penetrating my clothes and will I smell like pee during servivces and will anyone notice.

      Dogs romp wildly in the park, on and off leashes. Their owners stand and chat, and laugh at their dogs rolling over one another in the muddy grass. Outside the park on the sidewalk I am on a not-too-smelly bench and this guy comes over with his shitsu on a leash. He picks the dog up and stands it atop the stone wall where the dog can peer into the park. It leans forward, all four legs rigid, chin jutting out in rapt attention, studying the dogs running freely on the other side. Just for a moment. Then the man lifts the dog back down and they walk along the sidewalk towards my bench. "That's all the park YOU get, doggo." And the dog stops immediately and pees on the tree at my feet. It was a fat shitsu, too. You gotta love this New York.

      So I'm sitting there, Mr. IBM'er in my black pin stripe suit, tie, vest, umbrella a neat black cylinder folded on my lap (so it won't rain) and I'm studying the synagogue's impressive facade and thinking of 351 years of Sephardic prayers echoing, at peace, never considering that fat is about to strike a second time.

      Three young people walk towards me and this really BIG girl is looking, no, staring at me on the bench - eye contact like this is unusual except from the nuts and she's just fat, not nuts, and I'm wondering as they pass and she looks hard right at my lap and I'm wondering if my fly is open and maybe I'm peeing right in front of myself, no-hands, and suddenly she screams "OH MY GOD, HE HAS A GUN !!!!!" and they all turn and look at me and step backwards as the rest of passers-by scatter immediately.

      I lift the umbrella and point it right at her chest and press the release button. SNAP! and it shoots forward and opens with a whumping sound. Hysterical laughter. I am pleased to have been found looking so dangerous on the edge of Central Park West opposite the Separdic Spanish Portugese Synagogue. You couldn't make this stuff up. I should'a worn my camo.

      The building is open now and I've made a mistake, arriving at 6PM as per the instructions, forgetting that this is a SPANISH and Portugese Synagogue and that everyone else will be 45 minutes late or more. So I'm inside - the door is now unlocked, and walk in with my folded umbrella and this guy (not fat) says "NO UMBRELLAS" and points to a corner behind the door where I can leave it. I've violated orthodox taboo #1. No umbrellas in the sanctuary.

      Quickly I grope for a yarmluke and go to some length to make sure it's secure on my head before wandering around. There are a few fun minutes kibbitizing helping debug an electrical problem as half the lights in the building won't go on. At a display case I read that Cardozo, who was barmitzvah in this building, carried the day in 1848 when he spoke against a motion to permit men to sit with the women in the sanctuary. The minutes of the meeting report that he spoke so eloquently and at such length of the disadvantages of such admixture that when the final vote was tallied out of 88 attending, only 7 voted in favor of the motion and 2 abstained.

      Now there are typed instructions including that men and boys may not bring books to the women's second floor pews and they may not enter this area at any time under any circumstances. I stay safe on the first floor, waiting to make some more creative foul-up of orthodoxia than an idle foray into the women's loft.

      Having built anticipation to a high pitch by wandering everywhere else first, I move now into the sanctuary. Immediately I am awed. This is a place to stand in silence, touching directly the age, the piety, the foreignness of this place. to step through the heavy doors is to stand more than a hundred years back in time. The brass-capped steps up into the pews are worn so low that I wonder they're navigable, the floors sag, and there! In the back row of pews is a double-stack of prayer shawls and I admire them and their Israeli blue-and-white and I think, "why not, I've always wanted to wear one of these and what could be more appropriate than in such an orthodox place, to show my respect..." so I pick one up - Steve will read this and, knowing it's Friday, will wince before the rest of you. I look closely to find and touch the spirit of my chosen tallis. It's neck area is tan with the oil of a thousand pious necks, the corners frayed with age, and some of its fringe hangs in a loop at one end, needing a sewing repair. I drape it across my shoulders, and immediately I'm tangled in the fringe and I cannot find my hands. Embraced in what must have been so natural an act as to have been thoughtless to previous wearers, I am embraced. I do not care.

      Untangle, sit on the left side, take a prayer book, read sayings of the old rabbis- which I always love. "If you learn a single sentence from a man, a word, even just a single letter, you should honor him as your most respected teacher..." Handling the special knotted cord at one corner of my shawl I imagine a Jewish rosary prayer.

      The sanctuary is empty but for me, yet here, alive, is the vibration of basso echoes from what must have been packed high-holy days in the past. The Sabbath, the pause for reflection, recaptured, remembered, and I forget, for a time, the fat people who have run me from the park and screamed at my umbrella on the sidewalk. Silent. No longer reflecting, just feeling the place. I sit.

      For a time. People, only men, trickle in, first just one, and he sits on the other side than I, and I wonder if I'm on the "wrong" side and quickly I glide, hidden by shadows of the still lights-half-out gloom, to his side of the chamber. He takes no notice of me in my prayer shawl. I bask in my propriety and pretend that I belong there. My greasy shawl is too warm but now in place, it is committed. An omen.

      In the back pew I sit and read. More men, and now two women are visible in the choir loft opposite. And two Greek orthodox priests walk in and climb the center island pulpit. What? Oh, these must be Sephardic rabbis. One of them begins to chant, softly, a lilting melody of unintelligible orthodoxy. Is it Portugese? Hebrew. Could have been Greek.

      More people, men, walk in freely, and find seats and join the chanting, sometimes suddenly leaping to their feet to bend to left, towards the torah, to the right, and I feint similar moves, like a bad movie, just out of synch with the sound track, I move a little too late and I hope no one notices. Or cares. The Ashkenazi Jew moves stiff little jerky moves, uncertain. Late. The Sephardim leap wildly, emotional, freely, without self-consciousness. An un-Sabbath moment of gentle envy, and better, admiration.

      The wedding party of men appear and file into a front pew. They don't know I'm behind them and only Irwin knows me anyway. I am invisible, safe, smug in my perfect adaptation to Sephrdic orthodoxy. I do not identify myself to them as a fellow stranger. My brother-in-law Irwin keeps looking at a sheet of paper whereon surely are scrawled instructions for his role tomorrow, and I feel the tension in his back as he rehearses his moves.

      The service is in full swing, now, with not even a single recognizable part. I wait to hear at least a familiar brucah, or at least, for heaven's sake, the Shma. Nothing. Like Godot, no Shma.

      Suddenly I am struck with horror. Real, serious horror, and now I know the next orthodoxy faux pas I've committed. The rabbis are wearing prayer shawls - tallis I was taught, or tallit - but not another single soul in the whole synagogue is so draped. Except the Poughkeepsie jewboy. Jewboy? No Jew could be so stupid. Do I let it slip to the pewbench?

      Desperate for an excuse, I remember Steve Arnold's explanation about following unfamiliar practices: when you visit a community you are permitted to follow your own customs. When you join a community you are expected to follow their practices. Well I'm a visitor. Maybe they'll think that in Poughkeepsie we wear the tallis on Friday night. And in the back of my fake-jew-christian-raised mind a little voice reminds me of some cloudy conversation with Arnold - something about Saturday Mornings?

      Now one man among all the worshippers is clearly the most important. He is wearing the most expensive suit, the slickest homberg, and he walks around during the service, checking that people have a prayer book, or just ambling like maybe he's the president.

      And he's really quite chubby, you might say a little on the fat side. Omen.

      I'm thinking about what this fatness might mean when suddenly, like the furtive shadow in the park arbor, he disappears. Was I imagining him? Thrill. A Sepahrdic mystery. In zero time and with no evidence of having twitched a single muscle, suddenly he's behind me, then next to me, then in front of me. Three zero-time moves. Soundlessly.

      He turns, his breath hot in my face. A hiss "No tallit!" and he is gone. Gone. Am I hallucinating?

      Out of control, from my throat a wild scream erupts, halting the service. Echoing over 351 years of hebraic prayer I shout at full volume "GOD FORGIVE ME" as I whip the tallit from my shoulders, fanning it out like a bull fighter, quickly folding it into a perfect rectangle and replacing it where it was found.

      Shocked faces glare at me from the choir loft and my sister turns beet red. Down in the front pew Irwin, horrified, pivots along with the rest of them, whitefaced and grim. From a cannon, Mom, in the women's loft is shot to her feet, nearly off her feet, she lands teetering, ghost-white, as if to fall right over into the forbidden men's seating fifteen feet below, and my sister has to grab her by the waist, pulling her backwards into the loft once again. In complete shock, the Greeks at the pulpit, I mean the Rabbis, turn and stare right at me.

      The older Rabbi raises his finger, pointing first at me, then in an awsome booming voice, sharp with rage, ...,

      No, that's not at all what happened. Quickly and quietly I fold and replace the tallit, mouthing "thanks" to my advisor who now lurks in arborshadows near the ark.

      And the service drones on until, a speech halted in mid-sentence, it's over.


      djf for LB/SM New York NY 11:22PM 5/26/95

      Daniel Friedman's Poetry & Short Stories
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      This article series contains poetry, prose, short fiction by Daniel Friedman. For more of Daniel's writing see this link: Daniel Friedman's Poetry & Short Stories. Any relationship of text in these materials to persons living or dead is probably not a coincidence.


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