Running wearily past the kosher bakery, past the coffee shops, past the kosher providores, past the nearly-kosher food shops, I light upon a face I think I know. The face sits atop a tall figure who wears a black frock-coat, dark side whiskers and a once-black beard. I slow and the man hails me. He thinks he knows me. He speaks: can you come inside and make a minyan?
The man is not alone. Next to him stands another tall man, bearded, not young. Both men wear broad-brimmed black hats. The two wear beseeching looks. They edge closer. With the men standing thus closer than I’d wish, I realise I don’t know either of them. But they have guessed right: I am indeed Jewish and I understand their request. They are one worshipper short of a quorum.
I reply, I’m sorry, I’ve already davvened (recited my prayers) this morning.
Please, we have a mourner who needs a minyan for kaddish.
I know what this means, I’ve shared the plight of this nameless someone, recently bereaved, who wishes to honour his dead. I tell the men, I haven’t prayed in shule for a long time. My wife is immunocompromised and I mustn’t bring home a germ.
Long beseeching looks from two quarters. I relent: Alright, as long as there’s space for me to stand at a distance, in the rear.
I follow the men into a side street. They lead me to a door in a nondescript building that I would not have noticed, and I follow the men inside. Through a second doorway, along a passage then up some stairs to a third doorway. The door opens to a wide space beneath a low ceiling. I look around; there’s space here for fifty minyanim, but the worshippers are few. I make my way to the back of this room which I recognise as a synagogue by the Holy Ark located at the distant front. I peer and sight a second Ark. Odd, a puzzle.
I expect my stay to be brief. Kaddish is one of the earliest prayers; I’ll stay, I’ll listen for the Mourner’s Prayer, I’ll join in the responses then sneak out. I’ll still make it home in time for the meal with my wife.
But Kaddish is not soon recited. This group follows a different order of prayer, in which the mourner’s prayer is recited late, not early. What’s more, these guys pray devoutly, with slow deliberation. I settle in for the long haul.
Discreetly I reach for my phone and send my wife a message: Sorry darling, detained in circumstances of unforseen sanctity.
I wait and wait, my mind adrift. From the distance, a man approaches. I don’t know him. He asks, What is your wife’s name in Hebrew?
I understand his purpose. He wishes to offer a public prayer for Annette’s recovery. Touched, I provide the information. The man now sets before me a tin with a slot in the top into which the charitable congregant might insert a coin. To donate to charity is a mitzvah, a sacred act. The man places a coin next to the tin, to enable this mitzvah. Once again touched, I provide my own coin. And settle down, happy to wait in this warmbed of piety.
At length we come to the closing psalms. All rise. A voice is heard; Yitgadal ve’yitkadash shmei rabah, magnified and sanctified be the holy Name. The prayer ends and I make for the door. A man, younger than all the rest, strides towards me, a wide smile breaking open his unshaved face. He says, You can’t possibly appreciate the great mitzvah you have done for me today.
What has this story to do with a cantor, or his dog, or for that matter, his wife? Simply this: running home a fortnight later, on precisely the same route, I paused for red lights at a traffic intersection. A musical voice cried: DoffanPaz! One person only calls me by that name, the young cantor, contemporary of my son. A small dog on a lead looked up at me from beside the cantor’s ankles. Holding the upper end of the lead was a youngish woman who smiled at me. The cantor introduced me to wife and dog.
For want of any better idea, I recounted the story above. The cantor’s wife smiled again. She said, You should write that story and print it on your blog. I like your stories.
Such a compliment comes to me but rarely. I promised I’d write the story. And there you have it.