In My Father’s Synagogue
Tue, 05/24/2011
Magen David Synagogue, Brooklyn, New York, 1984. PHOTOS by Judith Helfand
Magen David Synagogue, Brooklyn, New York, 1984. PHOTOS by Judith Helfand

Like virtually all Syrian Jews, my father was a staunch traditionalist. A faithful synagogue goer every Shabbat, he would never have considered Reform or Conservative Judaism as an option for himself or for his family. Instead, clean-shaven, in a dark suit and doused with cologne, he would attend Shabbat services every Saturday morning at the traditional Syrian congregation near our home in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood — and later on go to work.

In this respect, he resembled many of the Syrian men of his generation. For the Syrian Jews both then and today, the synagogue is the great unifying factor. When I was growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, men went to synagogue whether they were fully observant or not. There was a range of observance, but as long as one went to synagogue, one declared one’s religious and social place in the community.

The bulk of the community immigrated to New York in the first quarter of the last century, mostly from Aleppo and Damascus. They settled on the Lower East Side, moved to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and lived there through World War II, after which they began to move to the Ocean Parkway section of Brooklyn.

Born on the Lower East Side and raised in Bensonhurst, my father was a child of these transitions. His parents were from Aleppo and Turkey. He grew up to become a manufacturer’s representative for pharmaceutical companies, working from home in our converted attic. In that era it was even common (although perhaps not advertised) for many of the men of the community to go to work after synagogue on Saturday mornings, often as a matter of practical economic necessity.

For the community’s women, on the other hand, things were somewhat different. Gender roles are a highly stratified realm in the Syrian community, and women are not generally included in the public religious and ritual life of the community. At the time I was growing up girls and women rarely attended synagogue except on the High Holidays, when we sat in the back or upstairs in the balcony, depending on the synagogue.

Since the Torah was in the center of the room, typical of Syrian synagogues, it really wasn’t so far from where we were sitting. But it might have been on another planet for all we were concerned. For us, it was “religious” simply to be there, not to participate in any formal way. In that era women most often could not read Hebrew and did not know the distinctive Oriental melodies of the Syrian liturgy. So they could not join in the male-led and executed prayers even if they wanted to.

In the women’s section we had our own sounds and melodies: the fashionably dressed women talking of recipes, community news and news of their children, while the teenage girls chattered of clothes and boys.

Despite the profusion of Syrian congregations that have sprung throughout the Gravesend neighborhood, in times of death the community hearkens back to the more modest neighborhood where the immigrant generation raised sons and daughters and where my father was raised. They return to the Magen David Synagogue in Bensonhurst — what the community refers to as the “Mother Synagogue” — and mourn their dead, cradled in the arms of their history.

Thus it was that I came to this humble, unpretentious synagogue on a rainy day in May 2005, to mourn my father’s sudden death at 76 after a short and unexpected illness.

By then, of course, I was no longer the girl who had sat in the back of the synagogue with all the other girls. In the late ‘70s, I left this tight-knit community to go to college. The Syrian community, with its organization around extended families, gender bifurcation, lifecycle events and ritual, could not have been more different than the world of liberal arts I imbibed at New York University. Living and studying in Greenwich Village, I was exposed to the notions of individual expression and individual fulfillment that defined the lives of college students.

Had I stayed in the Syrian community I would have or should have been married by around 18 or 19. This was a traditionalist path I was ultimately unable to follow. But the Syrian Jewish traditions I grew up with, and the new ideas to which I was exposed by crossing the Manhattan Bridge eventually converged for me in my decision to go to rabbinical school: a life at the heart of community and religion, and a journey seeking individual fulfillment and expression. I was one of the few from my Syrian circle of friends who left the community.

In 1989 I entered the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. What a strange way for a young Jewish woman to rebel! But coming from the Syrian community it was the ultimate rebellion. Girls simply don’t become rabbis. So far I’m the first, and also the last, to do so.

During my years at rabbinical school I would have a recurring dream of my father dying and me being forbidden to eulogize him at his funeral — an act of public mourning that women are, indeed, not permitted in the Syrian community. I’ve heard of one woman (the older sister of a friend) who did so at her grandmother’s funeral in 1987 — she just, without permission, strode to the bima, delivered it and sat down again. Afterwards, as a result of her brashness, the rabbis explicitly forbade women from eulogizing publicly at funerals to make clear what had, up to then, been assumed and implicit. In my dreams I would want to deliver a eulogy for my father, and the Syrian powers that be would try to stop me. Sometimes they would win and I would be heartbroken, and sometimes I would win.

I wanted it all, it seemed: the world I had joined and the one that I had left behind.

When my father actually did die in 2005, the rabbi of my father’s synagogue encouraged me to believe this was something I might have. He was one of the more liberal rabbis in the community, trained at Yeshiva University and somewhat influenced by Ashkenazi values such as pluralism. He was interested in the fact that I was a rabbi, and was open to my giving a eulogy. I was grateful for his respect, affirmation and willingness to let me speak.

But the funeral as it unfolded was different and stranger than any of us expected. Stranger, even, than my dreams.

The rainy weather seemed the right backdrop for a funeral as we gathered at the Magen David Synagogue, an imposing light brick neo-Romanesque structure erected in 1921. There were about 150 people at the funeral, but it was a gathering composed of two very different and distinct subgroups of mourners: my parents’ friends from the Syrian community and mine from the Ashkenazi, mostly egalitarian traditional, world who had known my father and had come to support me.

My husband Larry delivered the first eulogy for my father. He made it rather short and then introduced me, and I rose up to go to the stage to deliver the eulogy. But suddenly another rabbi stood up. He, we found out later, was the rabbi of the synagogue. In an accent I couldn’t place — from somewhere in the Middle East — he declared loudly and firmly, “I’m sorry, ladies do not speak in the synagogue.”

I froze. Then, after a second that seemed much longer, I took one horrified breath and started wailing, repeating over and over, “He’s my father, he’s my father.” The cries were genuine and heartfelt. But I have to admit I was also conscious of the drama of the moment — that my cries were my political protest — and so I stepped up the volume a bit.

While I was doing this, my aunt stared meaningfully at my father’s rabbi, the one who told me I could speak, wanting him to get up and intervene. Despite my aunt’s insistent gesticulating, he only looked down at his hands, avoiding eye contact with anyone in my family. Meanwhile the culturally cleft congregation held its collective breath.

Finally, after a few long moments of my wailing, the rabbi of the synagogue opened the building’s back door, to the side of the bima, and gestured outside towards the courtyard now turned muddy by the pouring rain, and said, “Here, you can stand here and speak.”

And so I got up, and was followed immediately by a retinue of friends who rushed to my side, and by my 89-year-old Moroccan step-grandmother, who didn’t understand English, and didn’t know what was going on, but did know that wherever I was going, she was going too. I went out in the rain, where someone handed me a microphone. On one side of me stood my cousins and on the other stood a close friend holding an umbrella over my head. My grandmother stood close by.

The entire congregation moved up to be closer to me. I heard afterwards from friends that there were mutterings from some of my parents’ friends that it wasn’t right that I should speak. But despite the divided crowd, and what I knew were judgments flying left and right, I spoke. My mother told me afterwards that she was afraid that I would be angry and start yelling about women and their place in the Syrian community. But in a quavering voice I simply read the eulogy I had prepared.

Afterwards in a conversation with the rabbi of the Magen David Synagogue I discovered that he was proud of the compromise he had come up with. My friends were horrified at what he did. But I, too, appreciated his solution as one of creativity and compromise in the life of this community.

I realized later that where I was standing was also where the kohanim stand during a funeral so they will not come into contact with the dead. I felt a strange sort of honor to be in the place of the kohanim. I was at once exiled, on the margins of my community of origin and yet, I felt, I had been on holy ground. Somehow I had found, at least for a few moments, my integration. My recurring dream had come true in the best possible way: I had given voice to the love and honor I had for my father and yet remained, if not at the center at least in contact with, the community that had given rise to both my father and me. There, I stood, a mourner, a woman, cradled by the “Mother Synagogue.” I, a Syrian Jewish woman, was able to raise my voice in the purifying rain.

Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses is a freelance educator and writer. She lives on the Upper West Side with her husband and three children.