“Let’s go across the street to visit Zaidy,” my mother usually said, at shul’s end every shabbat, when the sanctuary had completely emptied and all that remained in its echoing interior were my mother, sisters, and I, and a man who would press his face against the women’s section door, angrily awaiting our departure so he could lock up. We were typically the last ones to leave, arriving only a few minutes before the services would end, and then lingering around to continue in private prayer, or to stand around awkwardly socializing with those we’d grown up with, but had grown apart from. My sisters and I would nod at our mother’s request, slowly rising from the itchy upholstered benches, and teeter in our sharp heels down the steep staircase and out the door through a throng of the fancily dressed. It was like entering a pit of humans, all encased in the parameters of the sprawling concrete entryway, spilling out onto the sidewalk, but ending cautiously by the curb, which edged the busy street, Hempstead Avenue.
There was always some type of delay in our travels. Though our route was short; simply cross Hempstead Avenue, and we’d be at Zaidy’s house, we first had to traverse the maze of clustered bodies and spiraling conversations, the former school teachers who would come to admire how much we’d grown, the friend of our father’s who’d ask us if we had a nice girl for his son, the girl whose outfit we’d have to stop to critique, and mentally record for future shopping sessions.
By the time we’d reach the curb, about to ready to cross, we’d invariably realize we had lost a family member in the sea of faces. Turning around, we’d see our mother wave at us from amidst a group of four chatting women, both an “I’m here!” and a “Go ahead without me- I’ll be there in minute!” type of gesture. My three sisters and I would then step off the painted concrete curb and into the street, waiting for the perfect moment to cross.
We would usually run, because often the moments without cars were inopportune, and it was challenging to see if anyone was coming from beyond the curve of the road. Linking arms, we’d hurry across the road, our fancy shoes clicking and reverberating through the momentary traffic din.
Hempstead Avenue knew my Zaidy Yoel well. For the twenty five years that he was my grandfather, he lived across the street from our shul in West Hempstead, in a sun-lit brick home. He would constantly traverse the street several times a day, going to and from shul. On most days, his figure could be seen crossing Hempstead Ave, resisting to be pushed in a wheel chair, and always insisting on walking solo, cane in hand, his aide trailing helplessly behind him, lest he fall. His posture was stooped, and his large black orthopedic shoes clomped across the concrete in a slow gait, as cars stopped, patiently waiting for him to finish his journey. His frail legs moved methodically up the stairs and into the shul, pausing to greet lingering passersby and fellow shul-goers, always ready with a joke, witty comment, or to share words of Torah.
Zaidy Yoel was a spiritually connected man, fervent in his dedication to Judaism, but in his later years, when Parkinsons shook his life, shook his arms and legs, and even the small muscles in his face, he never wavered from viewing the shul and religious rituals as the center of his being. He fought to continue in his Judaic practices, praying three times a day, fasting on commemorative holidays, rescuing Torah scrolls and discarded books, trying to revive them and give them new life. And always crossing the street, in the rain, snow, sleet, or sweltering heat, to mark his presence in the synagogue, to perform his duties as an Orthodox Jew.
And so, on Shabbat, his children and grandchildren who lived in the area would make it a point to visit, to engage our elderly, ailing grandfather. His house would be filled with our boisterous laughter, as we all caught up on the week’s events.
“How is your guitar playing, Surahle?” Zaidy asked, a few cracker crumbs spilling from his lips and landing on his tie, with the gold “Joel” clip affixing it to his shirt. His aide reached forward and brushed off his chest, tucking a napkin into the neck of his collar so as not to further soil his shirt.
“It’s good, Zaidy. I can play a few songs. Not so well, but it’s a start!” An avid musician, he had been thrilled when I’d come to him, asking for a guitar to start learning in my college years. In his basement, amidst a crowd of cellos, violins, violas, and other stringed instruments, stood a lone classical guitar. He had given it to me, excited to be sharing a love of music with a granddaughter, and although he could not directly teach me, he loved to stay abreast of my progress.
“I’ll try to come by during the week to play for you.” I smiled, sweeping my gaze across the room, bedecked with paintings- many of them his own artwork or his favored collectibles, in various Judaic, Israeli, or musical themes.
There were times when Zaidy was less involved in the conversation, and was more the passive observer, quietly watching his progeny enjoying themselves from a distance, telling jokes or sharing stories. The gatherings always ended with a kiss on the cheek, a bristling of his thick mustache against our skin, the sharp white hairs tickling at our youth, and an enthusiastic, “Good Shabbos!” before heading home.
These weekly visits continued on for several years, even after I got married and moved to Philadelphia, then to Miami, and back to New Jersey, after I’d had a daughter of my own, and a son on the way. But always when returning home for a holiday or weekend, I’d make the mild trek across Hempstead Avenue after shul to visit Zaidy, the gusting winds of the passing cars ruffling my hair and lifting my skirts as I’d hurry to his house.
It was befitting that his funeral took place at the shul, the heart of his life for so many years, and I remember walking into the lobby, the coffin draped in a blue velvet, a gold star of David woven onto its lush surface. The sanctuary was overflowing with people; those who had known and loved him as we had. The outcasts whom he had made feel that they belonged. The janitor who had become a good friend. Study partners ranging in varying decades of ages. The Rabbi, who was both a sharer and receiver of humor and Torah alike. All shed equal tears on his departure.
I knew the shul would never feel the same without his presence; there would never again be that figure in the pew down below, the words of his Large Type siddur visible to me from a story above in the women’s section. The rippling of the pages as he struggled to turn each one, his gnarled fingers and aching joints uncooperative. His melodic voice, joining and then rising above the others in song. His Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur lectures, and his blowing of the elongated shofar, the one that required a helper to hold, the blasts so long, we would count the seconds on our fingers and toes, and then back to our fingers. The way his tefillin would enwrap his arm, the black straps contrasting to his pale skin, speckled with white hair, tight and secure, almost choking. And his tallit, the jingling silver that made music as he bowed and swayed in prayer, the wool yellowed from years of wear.
As the pallbearers hoisted the coffin from its perch in the lobby, my Zaidy’s body at rest inside, his soul peering at us from above, finally free from the prison of his ailing limbs, the crowd of funeral-goers gushed from the glass lobby doors and out onto the front pavement of the shul. And as they passed me by, the men struggling with the weight of the box, I knew the thing I’d miss the most.
It was the last time Zaidy would leave the shul and head towards Hempstead Avenue. The last time I’d stand outside the doors, jostled by a crowd, wanting to emerge and race across to his house. I looked up, looked across the line of cars, the hearse that sat parked on the busy street, looked past the old oak tree on his lawn and saw his home. This was our final time, our final journey together, crossing over, our footsteps tapping and thudding, all at once. And from within me, I cried the sounds of his shofar, loud and clear and long, and I think he heard.