Sometimes people whom I barely knew, people long dead, come to my mind. Their faces are indistinct, but I remember a yearning they expressed that, as a child, I was too young to understand.
These memories come upon hearing songs—the melodies familiar, the words foreign—songs in Hebrew, sung for generations of which we each belong to only one.
I learned these songs as a child in my shul. It was home to a remnant Jewish community in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, NY. My siblings and I, four of us, typically constituted half the Sunday school class. Our parents, children of immigrants who wanted their children to be Americanized, received no formal Jewish education. Now living in a multi-ethnic but largely Christian community, my parents wanted their own children to know something of what it meant to be Jewish.
The shul was a three-story, semi-attached row house. On the ground floor were the rabbi’s office and a modest sanctuary. Most singing, however, occurred either in the upstairs Sunday school classroom or in the basement, where there was a large social hall. I remember singing the words I didn’t understand—which mattered little if I liked the melody—in this large room full of old people. Now I know the sense of yearning I remember was embedded in the minor key of those melodies.
During my childhood, Jews were mostly older people, and most of them seemed to be very old people. They had remained in our revolving immigrant neighborhood through its subsequent transformations, perhaps because they had already left their homes in Europe. The women would come, shrunken by age, mink stoles draped about their shoulders; their husbands wore black wool coats. We’d eat hamantaschen together and drink diluted Manischewitz.
The pinnacle of my family’s life at the shul was my brother’s bar mitzvah. It was quite an affair for my parents to host—my aunt and uncle came all the way from Florida! The entire congregation was invited, and it seemed they were filled with as much excitement as my family. We girls, three of us, all got new dresses—a rarity. My parents hired caterers for the reception, and my grandfather, acting as bartender, got drunk—another rarity. My brother received enough money in gifts to buy his first piano.
Soon after the bar mitzvah, my family moved, and the shul closed.
When I hear a song from this past, I remember those now-faded congregants. My brother’s bar mitzvah was not his own or his family’s but that of a community passing, a community shul that had come to the end of its life.
The melody comes back, sometimes the words, and I sing the song that has been sung for generations. The dead live again, and I add my voice to the history.
This essay originally appeared in Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative.