Traditions Survive Across Generations

4 Oct

My grandfather was a Cohen. Born in Poland, he took this role seriously. Cohanim lead off the aliyot at synagogue; they have to be present at a “pinyon ha ben,” the ceremony for the redemption of the first born. They cannot marry a divorced woman. They do not go to the cemetery or funeral except for a very close relative. And for me the most intriguing, they lead the dukhanen on the high holidays

When I was a little girl I loved to go sit with Grandpa in shul. He had a large tallit ( prayer shawl) and would wrap me into it as I sat next to him. Whenever the Shema was said, he would lift his tallit so it covered his head and face. “Why do you do that?” I asked. Most of the other men just kept their tallit on their shoulders.

“When I say the Shema I speak to G-d,” he told me. “When you say the Shema you have to cover your eyes, ” he told me, “and think about the prayer .” To this day whenever I say the Shema I put my right thumb on one eyelid and my forefinger on my other eyelid to keep my eyes closed, just as Grandpa taught me. And I think about the words I am saying. I taught this to my children.

Because Grandpa was a Cohen on special holy days he would perform the priest prayer, the dukhanen, with other Cohanim descendants. They would be dressed in white kittals, robes, over which they wore their tallit. When they entered the sanctuary they stood at the front if the congregation and covered their heads with their tallit.

At this point my Mom told me to look away. “When the Cohanim chant this prayer they speak to G-d and his light comes. If you look once, you will go blind in one eye. If you look twice you will go blind. If you look the third time you will die,” she said.

How can you possibly die if you are already blind? Okay she admitted you cannot die, but still you must turn your face away and not watch. To this day I do turn away. I still cover my eyes. But sometimes I sneak a peek. And I said the same thing to my children.

Many congregations no longer do the dukhanen , but my congregation continues this tradition. At Rosh Hashannah this year, as I watched the Cohanim walk in and prepare for their chant I remembered my grandfather. In my mind I could see him walking to the front of the room.

My father was not a Cohen. As an Israelite, he had no special role, but he loved his Judaism and his congregation. My Dad was president of his synagogue for 11 years. A record I am sure. He worked to pass his love of Judaism to his grandchildren. Before each of my children’s bar/bat mitzvah, my parents came to stay with me. My Dad studied with them each day for the week before the service, listening to them chant Torah, helping. He was so proud as each of his six grandchildren reached this important day.

Grandpa kissing his tallit after touching the Torah.

Grandpa kissing his tallit after touching the Torah.

As the Torah comes through the aisles before being returned to its resting place behind the curtains and the doors, beneath the everlasting light,  I touch it with my siddur.  My Mother taught me to do this, as I watch the men touch it with the fringe of their tallit.  This I also taught to my children.

When I go to shul, I am never alone. Even if my husband is not with me, in my mind I see my grandparents and parents. When I chant the Amidah, standing with my feet together, I gently sway back and forth, Schukling. My children would sway with me when they were little. Sometimes my children would lose my rhythm and sway into me. Now just my husband is with me. And he sways into me sometimes with a lilt in his eye.

My husband is a Levi.  Although he does not participate in the dukanen itself, he is called out before it to help the Cohanim prepare.   Many times, he does not have to do anything, because there are more Levi than Cohanim. But he goes, he says for the exercise.  But I know that it is a tradition that remains.

When we daven together, I feel the bond lasts across the generations.
As I recently stood to say Yahrzeit for my Dad, my son was with me. He now wears my Dad’s tallit. On his head was one of my Dad’s caps. As I stood, he lean my Dad’s hat against my hand. When I sat, he turned and said,” I thought you would want Grandpa near to you.” And I did.

But when I am in shul they are always with me. Their voices swirl among the other voices chanting.

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