I did not grow up in a grandiose Jewish temple, filled with jewel-like stained glass, ornate wood-carvings, or deeply cushioned pews. No: our basement synagogue was packed with gnarly old men with brown teeth and bad breath, redolent of pickled-herring, whiskey smell, and unwashed Sabbath clothing. There was a rabbi—indeed, he wore a homburg hat--but he was superfluous, except as a fund-raiser and mediocre sermonizer. In an Orthodox Jewish setting, one needs neither cantor nor rabbi to conduct a service; any learned congregant who can “gib ah kuk in ah sefer”—that is, “take a look in a Hebrew book,” meaning, one who can read Hebrew (practically everyone)—is qualified to lead services, no matter whether he be blessed with the voice of an angel or a donkey.
Most of the old men—as a child, they appeared ancient to me, though they were only a few years older than my forty-something father—were from Eastern Europe: Poland, Russia, Rumania—but there was one among us who was an exception: Baruch Izikoff. My down-to-earth father, no diplomat in pointing out the differences among human beings, was quick to teach my young mind the distinction between Baruch and the rest of the congregation.
He would whisper, in a voice loud enough to be heard in the street, “David, you see Baruch over there? He’s not like the rest of us! He’s a Turk!”
After which I fully expected poor Baruch to show up to services puffing a hookah water pipe, wearing a turban and gold-brocade slippers with pointed-up toes, and sporting a baluchi-knife stuck in a scarlet cummerbund—some Jewish-Turkish amalgam, fused together from my reading of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Alas, this never happened.
Still, true to his Middle Eastern origins, Baruch would, indeed, show up on Simchat Torah, a joyful autumn holiday marking the ending and resumption of the reading of the Torah scrolls, wearing a bright-red fez with a yellow tassel in place of his battered Borsalino hat. That was the time of year when he alone would be entrusted with conducting services, bellowing out the prayers before God to a tune known only to him and the Almighty, and dating, I assumed, back to his boyhood in Istanbul. All of us dull, Eastern European and American-born locals sat back in wonderment at this taste of Eastern exoticity in our little shul. Baruch’s deep basso profundo would ring out over the podium as he faced the Holy Ark:
“You have learned that the Lord is God; there is none besides God! O’ Lord save us—O’ Lord, prosper us—O’ Lord, answer us, when we call!”
I could not imagine God Himself not hearing that, along with the heavenly angels flocking around the Throne of Mercy, ready to deliver whatever Baruch asked for on our behalf, and showering down manifold blessings on our little congregation.
When he was not conducting services, Baruch enjoyed playing up his foreign aspect in our midst. Beetle-browed and stubby-fingered, he customarily showed around his mother-of-pearl inlaid box of tabak, the Yiddish word for snuff, offering it to knowing aficionados among his congregational cronies. These worthies would take a pinch of the ghastly brown powder—chopped-up tobacco, with perfume mixed in--between thumb and forefinger, insert it up either nostril, and be rewarded with a healthy sneeze. “’Tseh gezint—Good health!” Baruch would chortle in Yiddish, thumping their backs heartily, while their noses ran and their eyes teared. I wondered at the reasoning behind snuff, figuring it to be some sort of Old World sophistication. My father would only mumble beneath his breath, “It’s a filthy habit! And who knows where their hands have been?”
My strongest memory of Baruch is of his conducting the Havdalah ceremony on Saturday night, marking the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the workweek. This had an element of mystery. Jewish tradition held that we received an additional soul for the Sabbath, the better to enjoy the day of rest twice as much, and the Havdalah, or “Separation,” ceremony, served to mark the Sabbath’s conclusion, and the gradual transition from holy to secular time. As we had enjoyed the Sabbath with all of our senses, so did the ceremony involve wine for taste, cloves for smell, a torch-like, blue-and-white candle with many wicks for sight, and prayers for hearing. One of us children would hold the candle carefully over a plate, so that the hot wax would not drip on anyone. As the youngest members of the congregation, we had the special privilege of standing around Baruch as he held the winecup and began the service.
The twilight shadows grew longer and the candle-flames danced over our upturned faces. Baruch slowly, mournfully intoned the prayers, bidding a sad farewell to the legendary Holy Sabbath Queen and a reluctant welcome to the secular week: “Behold, God is my deliverance; I will trust, and not be afraid, for God is my strength and my song….” The carved wooden lions atop the Holy Ark, yellow-painted eyes staring, white teeth gnashing, and rampant, red tongues lapping the air, formed patterns on the wall. The candlelight flickered eerie, yet comforting, patterns on his whiskery, dark, and jowly face. “Blessed is God--who divides the holy from the secular, Israel from the nations, and the Sabbath from the rest of the week,” he sang, in a voice sad, but sweet.
Finally, he chanted the Twenty-ninth Psalm, in Hebrew, to a tune all his own—again, perhaps dating back to Turkey, one which I have never heard before or since. It was no mournful rendition of the common funeral dirge: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”—no: it was sad, but hopeful. As Baruch sang, I felt more the safe pastures into which God led us, rather than the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Then, we all shared some sweet wine from the enormous silver cup that he had blessed, and wished one another, Ah gut voch—Ah gut yohr!—“A good week, a good year!” before heading out into the dusk to our homes.
Baruch’s song gave our congregation, that humble gathering of workers, shopkeepers, teachers, and tradespeople, the strength they needed to get through the challenges of the coming week. At least, until the Sabbath would come again, with its rest and its blessings. And that was Baruch Izikoff’s gift to all of us.