Saturday, December 16, 2006

hail and farewell

In Orthodox Judaism, it takes ten men to make a minyan, or prayer group. Most people, when entering such a minyan, count kipa (yarmulke) covered heads. When they reach ten, they breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that the minyan's services are off and running.

What they don't know is that a minyan really takes two men: the gabbai (deacon), who runs the show, and the leiner, who reads the Torah portion.

These two guys make it happen. The gabbai is the one who knows the precise nature of the services, and can figure in complications: should the start of the month happen on Thursday, on the sabbath, how does that change things? He is also what I like to call the catcher, to the leiner's pitching.

To explain: reading the Torah from the scroll is a specific skill. You need to know Hebrew, of course, but you also need to know the handwriting style used for the Torah scroll, which is a kind of encoded music. The codes tell you what series of notes happen when, when a verse ends, and so on. None of this, however, tells you how the words are pronounced (Hebrew vowels are a dot/line code embedded in the word, called vowellation - and this vowellation is handily not included in the Torah), so the leiner must essentially memorize the text. You can see an example of Hebrew letters plus vowels, here.

So, what happens if the leiner hasn't had time to prepare the Torah reading for the week? Well, the gabbai uses a range of hand signs, to tell his leiner how to sing each verse. It looks a lot like a catcher telling the pitcher how to throw the next ball, except that it's happening just as the pitcher is throwing.

The Man is one of the local leiners, and for nearly five years now, he's been practicing his craft with a child in one arm. (Never two, mind you.) So the boys are growing up listening to the sounds of the Torah being sung, and watching their dad get corrected on weeks when sleep was lacking, along with anything resembling free time. And each night, they are sung to sleep by the Man, who sings a lullabye and the Sh'ma, sung as you would when it turns up in the weekly portion.

One day, the Eldest starting imitating the gabbai's frantic gestures (it must have been a particularly rough paternal week), and his father decided to make the wee terror live up to it. So the Man began training his own, personal catcher. It was a lark, a delight to see the Eldest wave his arms about imperiously...and then the Toddles caught on.

A couple of weeks ago, the Man was singing the Toddles to sleep with the Sh'ma, when the Toddles sliced his hand down, sternly. The Man stopped, sang again - and the Toddles repeated the gesture. It was the end of verse sign, or sof pasuk. Umm, thanks, said the Man, and tried not to laugh.

Perhaps, then, the minyan needs only one man - and his two sons? Assuming, of course, if it can wait until the boys come of age...

In the midst of bountiful baby-dom, I'm saying goodbye tonight to my Auntie Dor. Great-auntie to me, great-great-auntie to my boys, she left a painful body behind today after a long, full life. She was the energetic, artistic variant on my quieter grandmother, her sister, and I loved her very much.

Recently, she had valve repair surgery on her heart, and the Eldest and I decided to write her letters. Writing letters is a big deal for the Eldest, but he set to with conviction, and wrote a lovely little get-well card. We stuffed in drawings, photos, and sent it off to Australia, where she was delighted to recieve our package. I regret that the Eldest won't remember her, that the Toddles didn't meet her, and that I didn't have more time with her. But I'm glad that she had that much of my boys, and at this time. But I don't regret her death: all in all, she was a wise lady, and knew her moment.

My clearest mental image of her is from when the Eldest was nearly three, and we went to visit her in Melbourne. Auntie Dor, like my grandfather, was a lover of things that grow in the dirt, and she came outside with us to show us her garden. My mental snapshot is of the Eldest holding the door open for her, as she stepped through into a wonderfully green space. Sometimes, I suppose, one must open one's own doors.

Rest well, Auntie.


dykewife said...

children remember their parents and the time they spend together. they may not remember specific event (like your toddler in this entry) but they will remember the feelings of being loved and having the attention of their parents. like you remember your great-auntie, they will remember. the tribute you pay to your family, old and young, is a joy to read. :)

a mother in israel said...

So sorry about your aunt.

My DH also lains, and practiced many a parsha while walking a baby to sleep. He lained for many years before having kids so the hand motions have been unnecessary, but that's a great story.

Hoping my post will take this time.

margotmann said...

One thing you didn't mention in your post is just what enormous pleasure you and "eldest" gave Auntie Dor in the letters you wrote to her. All of them, but most of all the most recent one. She told me that she rarely replies to mail quickly but was so moved by this letter that she responded by return mail.
Auntie Dor counted her blessings and you were one of them.
(Your Mum)