Saul Levy, wearing gym shorts and a sweat-darkened tank top, locked his bike to a lamppost outside the Judaica store in Kew Garden Hills. On the Main Street sidewalk, women in long skirts and headscarves were herding children into bakeries, grocery stores and kosher restaurants. There were no men in sight.
Saul had come to buy a gift for his fiancée, Pauline, who was about to complete the process of converting to Judaism. Her decision, when she announced it about a year ago, had filled Saul with equal parts gratitude and awe. It was the single greatest act of devotion anyone had ever committed on his behalf. Although Pauline had found much that she loved in Judaism, she was converting first and foremost for Saul, out of a desire to be more a part of his world. Saul found this ironic, for he did not feel himself part of any world whatsoever. He was certainly not part of the world in which he had come to shop. He called this part of town, dominated by ultra Orthodox families, “the shtetl.” The people—the bulk of them anyway–lived in strict accordance with Jewish law and tradition and the social mores of nineteenth century Europe, but with far more shopping and dining options.
Saul was not exactly a “twice a year” Jew, a reference to those who only went to synagogue on the High Holidays. He was more like a ten times a year Jew. He dragged himself to the occasional Shabbat service because it made him feel grounded, that he was part of something bigger than his own struggles to make ends meet and maintain a modicum of self-respect. Since meeting Pauline, he was going more often, usually at her request. He neither loved nor hated the experience. Praying for him had about the same effect as going to a spinning class. He did not look forward to it, found it tedious and mildly unpleasant, but left feeling better about himself. He never went two weeks in a row. This would have brought him too close to embracing a world view at odds with his hard-earned rational cynicism. The notion of omnipotent, eternal, vengeful and merciful God with a special love for the descendants of Abraham was fun to consider but impossible to embrace.
When he entered the store, Saul found about twenty men, some in slacks and button down shirts, some in black suits and black hats, facing the street. They were holding prayer books, mouthing words, chanting, shuckling, bowing. Saul had walked smack dab into the middle of mincha, the afternoon prayers. It was not the orchestrated, orderly method of prayer to which he was accustomed. The Orthodox prayed together but alone, expertly, fast and furious.
His first instinct was to slip quietly out of the store and return in a few minutes, when the prayers would be finished. He would feel awkward just standing there, sweating in his gym clothes, and even more awkward browsing the store shelves, while everyone else was communing with God. But why should he have to sneak out like a thief? This was a retail store, not a beis midrash. And he was, after all, a Jew, though he did not practice as these men did.
As he was mulling over his options, he heard a voice from behind.
“Here, take my siddur.”
Saul turned and saw a short, pink-faced man with a long beard wearing a white linen suit and a gleaming white kippah. Saul did not remember seeing the man when he came in, which was curious, since the man was standing very near the entrance.
“No, that’s OK. I’m just here to buy a gift for somebody,” Saul said.
“You are not a Jew?” the man said.
“Yes,” Saul said. “But . . .”
“You are going to say, ‘but I don’t usually daven.”
“Yes. And I just came from the gym and am pretty sweaty, and the prayers are already half finished.”
The man nodded in silence for several seconds before speaking. “God will always welcome your prayers, no matter when you start.”
The man’s voice wielded compassion and reverence. The white suit and long white beard gave him an aura of mystery and spirituality, like a prophet visiting from a long bygone era. Saul was familiar with many stories of Elijah, always dressed in white, showing up in moments of crisis to perform acts of kindness. But Saul was not facing a crisis, merely a moment of awkwardness. Surely the man in white was a mere mortal.
Saul tuned into the men chanting, muttering, sputtering, sighing, and bowing. He both envied and dreaded their air-quivering fervent devotion. He recognized snippets of prayer, but it was all happening so fast. Saul thought about the time he had found himself , by an accident of circumstance, paired up with a college tennis player, rather than one of the middling intermediates with whom he usually hit. Same game, twice the speed and power. Saul could only get his racket on one of three shots, soon found himself with legs numb, lungs burning, on the verge of tears. He was, in short, out of his league, and he would be equally out of his league trying to pray with these men, who had been repeating the rituals three times a day since boyhood, who had wired into them not only the words of the prayers but the sources of those words and all their implications for this world and the next.
But the man in white continued to hold out his prayer book until his arm started to shake, and Saul could not in good conscience refuse any longer. He took the book with a forced smile. Thinking that using his bike helmet as a head covering would be, at best, in poor taste, he grabbed a small black kippah from a shelf behind him. He would have to buy it, of course, once it had been on his sweaty head.
The daveners had reached the amidah, the nineteen blessings spoken silently to whomever or whatever was listening. The siddur was only Hebrew with no vowels to aid in pronunciation. Saul’s Hebrew reading was clunky, and his knowledge of the prayers was fragmented. So he moved his finger along the page, hoping he appeared to know what he was doing, bowed when he saw the other men bow. He occasionally glanced at the man in white, who was deep in prayer, without the aid of the book.
If Saul could only find the right page in the siddur, he would recognize some of the words and could fake his way through to the end. But there were no headings, no page numbers, much less a table of contents. He flipped through the pages frantically, feeling more and more lost and defeated. He felt like quitting, tossing the book back to the man and saying, “Sorry, I tried, but this isn’t me. These guys feel these prayers deep in their hearts, while I’ve only ever dabbled in Jewish tradition, and I don’t know what most of these words mean, and I feel nothing when I say them. And if I did feel something, I’d be terrified.”
Then he glanced again at the man in white.
Although the man was facing the street, Saul felt he was looking at him the whole time, urging and comforting.
So instead of quitting, Saul decided to try a little harder. After all, amidst the gasping and stumbling, he had managed to hit one wicked forehand, heavy with topspin, past that college kid, who responded with solemn nod of respect. Saul stopped looking at the book and started to pray silently, trying to tune into a voice inside that said, “This is your tradition, these are your people, praying to your God, who is everyone’s God. Just accept this as true, for the moment.”
He was still trying to tune into that frequency when a tall man in a black suit standing to Saul’s left read the Mourner’s Kaddish in a booming voice, which everyone punctuated with an “Amen,” and then the prayers were done. The spiritual fervor dissipated immediately. Some of the men pulled out cell phones and started texting or talking. A couple started browsing the shelves. Most of them just left without a word. Contemporary life had resumed.
Saul scanned the room, taking in the shelves full of kiddish cups, candle sticks, hand-washing chalices, Challah covers and cutting boards, havdallah sets and menorah’s, some made of glass, some silver plated, some ceramic, none of them delicate or subtle or, by Saul’s standards, beautiful, but all of them insinuating a life sanctified and circumscribed by tradition. The boundaries were both comforting and revolting.
He looked at the wall with shelves lined with books of Talmud, Torah commentary, kabbalah, biographies of Jewish sages and saints. To even scratch the surface would take years of study. Maybe Pauline, eager to be immersed in Jewish life, would encourage him. Then again maybe her conversion would make him more complacent. I’ve brought another member into the tribe. Isn’t that enough? And perhaps he did not want to embrace these traditions, only to know them well enough to reject them with peace of mind.
Saul remembered the siddur in his hand. He turned to give it back to its owner. But the man in white was gone.
Saul took the prayer book to a man behind the counter.
“Somebody loaned this to me and disappeared before I could give it back. I can leave it with you in case he comes back.”
“I believe you were meant to keep it,” the clerk said.
“This is something that happens regularly?” Saul asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean a holy man in white magically appears and gets a skeptical Jew to pray, then disappears. And this book will be a reminder of what I’ve experienced and will steer me toward a path of greater observance and devotion. I’ve read stories like this. And now I’m the protagonist.”
The clerk raised an eyebrow.
“But I don’t feel transformed, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“So if it’s all the same to you, I’d like to leave the book here and not have to put it in my bag with my sweaty towel.”
The man behind the counter nodded and smiled. “I think you were meant to keep the siddur.”
“There’s a lot of nodding and silent acknowledgement of mysterious truths going on around here,” Saul said. “Too much for my taste, frankly. Next you’re going to tell me to step outside and I’ll actually be in Jerusalem. That’s how these things tend to go, right?”
“No,” the man said. You’ll still be in Queens.”
“So what’s with the ‘you were meant to keep that siddur’ bit? Did the man in white tell you to say that?”
“I never saw a man in white,” the clerk said. “But if a devout Jew handed you a siddur and left without it, he probably wanted you to keep it. He wouldn’t have forgotten it.”
“But a man in a white suit handed it to me,” Saul said. “Are you saying I imagined that? Because if there was no man in a white suit, how did I end up with this prayer book in my hand?”
The man shrugged. “Many things happen every day that we can’t explain. It’s just that most of these things we don’t notice.”
“You are very wise and mystical for a store clerk,” Saul said.
“It’s good for business,” the man said. “So what was it you came for?”
“A mezuzah,” Saul said, taking a deep breath. “For my fiancée. She’s converting.” After a moment of silence, Saul added, “Baruch HaShem.” Praise God. The words felt strange in his mouth, and his own voice seemed to come from far away.
The man behind the counter smiled and swept his arm across the display of mezuzah’s behind him. Saul fretted over his choice for several minutes before choosing one made of wood, decorated with images of Jerusalem. He paid for it, along with the scroll to put inside, waited while the clerk wrapped it, then left the store.
As he stepped outside, he turned around, but all he saw was the same old sign: Judaica Gifts. Around him, women, no doubt used to wearing too much clothing in too much heat, chatted and shopped, children laughed and whined, men walked briskly to whatever was next.
Pauline was probably making something out of quinoa. He had lost fifteen pounds since they’d met, besides becoming ten percent less pessimistic. He looked forward to giving her the mezuzah, which she would receive with tears of joy. They would put in the front doorway, and though they would not be in the habit of kissing it each time they entered, it would be a plainspoken symbol: this is a Jewish home, and the people who live here are Jews. Saul might mention the men praying in the store and his fleeting desire to be part of their world. But he would not tell the whole story because stories have a way of leaking into reality. He would not show her the prayer book or mention the man in white.