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The Meaning of Prayer

Ezra had never learned to pray. Oh, he learned lots of Jewish prayers all right. He learned prayers as songs with his mom in the tot services at their synagogue. He learned to lead prayers in front of other children at Junior Congregation. And, of course, he had a bar mitzvah and led half the service with everybody he knew sitting there. So he knew how to say lots of prayers. But he still wondered why he bothered to learn these old Jewish prayers. It wasn’t until one summer when he was in college and his bubbie¾ his grandmother¾ asked him to go on a special trip for her that he learned what it really meant to pray as a Jew.

Bubbie was very old and sick that summer. She had escaped the Holocaust in Europe, come to America, and started a family here. Ezra was 21 years old, the oldest of her many grandchildren. Now Bubbie was in a nursing home. Ezra knew that she would never go back to her own home again. His parents, her doctors, and everybody else believed she had only a few weeks to live. Ezra had a job for the summer but made a point of visiting Bubbie every few days, even if he just stopped in for a few minutes.

He arrived one day and found his bubbie in bed holding a cloth folded on her lap. She picked it up and unfolded it when he walked in. “Do you know what this is, my sveeteleh?” she asked. She called all her grandchildren sveeteleh, gently mixing Yiddish and English.

“It looks like a tallit,” Ezra said, admiring the prayer shawl embroidered with beautiful golden threads, “a very old tallit. It’s beautiful.”

“It is my father’s tallis. Your great-grandfather. He asked me to take it when we fled the German invasion. We all had to escape in different directions. My mother and sisters and I went west and ended up here in America. My brother went east toward Russia. My father got us all out, but he was arrested before he could get out himself. In case something happened to him, he wanted me to give his tallis to my brother, your great uncle Jacob. Now, I want you to take this tallis, find my brother or his family, and give it to them.”

Ezra was stunned by this surprise request. He barely remembered hearing about a great Uncle Jacob when he was little. “Do you know if he even got out alive? Do you know where he is?” he stammered.

“We got one letter from him. It came after the War. He was alive and living in Russia somewhere. We tried to get him out, but with the politics and everything at that time, we lost touch with him. I want to get this to him. Now, I am too old and sick to do it myself, but you, sveeteleh, you can do it. You are smart and strong. Go now. Take this tallis and do this for me.”

“But I can’t leave you now,” Ezra protested. “What if…, what if..?”

“What if I die? I will surely die before you get back. But it will mean so much to me if I know that you are taking the tallis to Jacob. Please. Here is money to buy plane tickets and train tickets and hotels and food–whatever you will need,” she said, handing him a check.

Ezra knew he couldn’t refuse her. He took the tallit and the check and hugged and kissed her. “I will try to find them,” he promised as he left his bubbie. There were tears in his eyes.

Over the next few days, with his father’s help, Ezra did some research and made plans and preparations, getting all the necessary travel papers. He visited his bubbie once more, just before he left to catch a plane for Europe to start his search.

In Europe there are Jewish organizations that help families track down people who were separated during the Holocaust. Ezra visited these organizations and looked through their records, but couldn’t find anything.

He grew increasingly frustrated. Ezra had looked through thousands of files trying to find anything that matched the little he knew about Jacob. Every time he thought he had something, it didn’t work out. By the time he reached the last organization on his list, he was afraid he’d have to give up. “Try going to Moscow. Things have opened up there. You might find some records,” a young woman at the organization told him. She gave him the names and addresses of some Jews in Moscow who might help him.

By that time, it was late Friday afternoon. “Do you have a place to go for Shabbat?” asked the young woman, who introduced herself as Leah. Ezra had no plans for Shabbat and had been so busy, he hadn’t even thought of it. Leah invited him to Kabbalat Shabbat at her synagogue.

Ezra felt funny walking into this strange synagogue filled with strangers in a strange city. When the congregation began the service, Ezra recognized the words of familiar prayers¾ L’Chu N’ran’na, Yismichu, L’Cha Dodi¾ but the tunes were all different. “The cantor is a Sephardic Jew. I didn’t recognize his tunes at first.,” Leah pointed out, which explained why Ezra didn’t recognize the melodies either.

“It’s beautiful,” Ezra replied, happy to be there with his new friend. Soon, he picked up the melodies and joined right in praying with the others. Before the service was over, he felt he was among friends. It didn’t feel so strange after all.

“Let me know what you find in Moscow,” Leah said when it was time to leave.

Ezra left a few days later for Moscow. When he arrived there he immediately started to look for the people Leah had told him about. He wanted to call them on the phone but couldn’t find their telephone number. So he took a cab to one of the addresses Leah had given him. It was evening. The cab left him standing in front of a dark building in a very poor part of town. Ezra was scared, but he knocked on the door.

An old woman came to the door and opened it just a crack. She didn’t speak English, and Ezra didn’t speak Russian or even Yiddish. He couldn’t make himself understood. But behind her, he heard familiar sounds. It sounded like Jewish prayers.

The old woman was about to close the door on him. “Jew, Juden, Eretz Yisrael, Shalom,” Ezra blurted out, thinking of any word she might recognize that would identify him as a Jew. The woman stopped and then motioned him to come in. Only later did he learn that the Russian word for Jew is Yevrai.

Inside, Ezra found a minyan. There were a couple of dozen men and women, some old, some young, and they were all praying. He picked up an old Hebrew siddur and joined in. Again, he found himself praying with strangers but surprised that the prayers were so familiar, even here in Moscow, so far from home. After the last kaddish, the people crowded around Ezra.

A few of the younger people spoke English. Ezra explained why he had come to Russia. They offered to help him, but they weren’t very hopeful. “It sounds like your great uncle, if he or his family is still alive, is probably in one of the former republics. There aren’t many Jews left there and it is hard to reach them by phone, but we’ll ask around,” one of the men said. Then, they all drank tea and ate some bread.

Ezra spent the next few days going through files at the office of an agency that kept information about misplaced people from past wars. But as before, he could turn up nothing on Jacob.

Returning to his hotel one evening a few days later, he found a message from one of the Russians he met at the minyan. They had found someone who knew someone who knew someone else who had known Ezra’s great uncle many years ago in the Ukraine. Ezra joined them again for minyan the next morning. After davening, they filled him in on the details. Everything seemed right, but many things could have changed in the years since this man last heard of Jacob. Still, Ezra wanted to leave immediately. “It will be a difficult trip,” his new friends warned. While he was arranging the paperwork to go to the Ukraine, he called his father with the news that he was pretty sure he had located Jacob and was going to deliver the tallit. He wanted his bubbie to know.

The trip to the Ukraine was difficult, as his new friends in Moscow said. It took a rough airplane ride and two uncomfortable trains to get to the small city deep in the Ukraine where Jacob was last known to live. Ezra arrived late on Friday and found a hotel. Nobody at the hotel had heard of Jacob. Ezra wasn’t surprised.

How would he find Jacob, Ezra wondered. He spoke a little Hebrew he had learned in Hebrew school and Spanish he had studied in high school and college, but he didn’t speak Ukrainian or even Russian. It seemed hopeless. Then, he realized: tomorrow is Saturday, Shabbat. If there are Jews still in this community, some of them would be at synagogue for Shabbat prayers. They would know of Jacob if anyone did.

Ezra, carrying the tallit Bubbie had entrusted to him, left his hotel early on Saturday morning looking for a taxi cab. He finally found one and jumped in the back. But he didn’t have an address of where he wanted to go. He didn’t even know if there was a synagogue. He tried to explain, but the driver didn’t speak English or Spanish and certainly not Hebrew. Then, Ezra remembered the one Russian word he had learned, Yevrai, which meant Jew. “Yevrai,” he said.

“Yevrai?” the driver repeated, puzzled.

“Yevrai. Yevrai. Yevrai!” Ezra persisted. The driver seemed to think for a minute and then started to drive. He took Ezra into a rundown section of town, finally stopping across the street from an old building with peeling paint that might have been an abandoned warehouse.

“Yevrai,” the driver said, pointing at the building. Ezra noticed some men walking along the street and going into the building. A few wore kipot. He paid the driver, got out of the cab, and entered the building.

Again, Ezra found himself in an unfamiliar place filled with strangers but surrounded by familiar things: a Hebrew siddur, the prayer book; the Aron Kodesh, the ark containing the Torah; and the Ner Tamid, the eternal light. He put on the tallit he had carried so far–his great-grandfather’s tallit¾ and joined in. A man invited him to take an aliyah. On a makeshift bimah, Ezra chanted the first of the ancient blessings¾ Barchu et Adonai ham’vo’rah¾ and the congregation responded–Boruch Adonai ham’vo’roh l’olom voed¾ just as it would at home. The Torah reading, the Musaf service, it all seemed so familiar.

After the service, the people crowded around Ezra. Stumbling through a mixture of Hebrew and English, he managed to explain why he was there and asked if anyone knew Jacob, his great uncle. Jacob, Ezra learned, had indeed been a member of this congregation, but he had died years ago. However, his children and their families lived not too far away. They would be sent for. It would be a great reunion, the people promised.

One man offered to try to get someone to put a phone call through to Ezra’s family in the US. It wasn’t easy and didn’t always work, but this time they got lucky. That afternoon, the call went through. But Ezra’s joy at finding Jacob’s family was clouded by sad news: Bubbie had died.

By evening, at Maariv, the word of Ezra’s arrival had spread. Jacob’s children, sons and daughters, were there with their children, along with the entire Jewish community. Ezra gave the tallit to Jacob’s oldest child, a big man about the age of Ezra’s father. The man gave Ezra a great bear hug in thanks and immediately wrapped himself in the tallit. Together Ezra and his cousin led the congregation in prayers. They chanted the Mourner’s Kaddish for Bubbie and for Jacob. They thanked God for their blessings–and Ezra felt truly blessed–and they praised God’s greatness. They prayed for peace and health. After Havdallah, they ate and drank and talked and sang Jewish songs until late into the night.

The trip home was long, with stops in Moscow and Europe, where Ezra thanked all those new friends who had helped him and once again joined them in their prayers. At every prayer service Ezra and his new friends recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for Bubbie. Leah seemed particularly surprised and pleased that Ezra came by. After lingering with her a few days and promising to visit again soon, Ezra got on the plane for home. Only then, thinking over all that had happened, did he realize how many minyans and Shabbat services he had joined. Praying together had created a special bond, not only between him and God but between him and all these different people, who stopped being strangers and became more like family. It was through the saying of these ancient prayers that this special bond was forever strengthened, even across different languages, different countries, and different generations. Now, Ezra finally understood what it meant to pray as a Jew.