and the synagogue were central to my life since my early childhood. My
father was the rabbi of several distinguished New York City synagogues
on the West Side and then the East Side of Manhattan. I recall many
times accompanying him to his work. His study in the synagogue, off to
the side of the main sanctuary, was lined with books, filled with a
musty smell, and had the creakiest wood floor I ever walked on. The
synagogue in Manhattan at that time was a stately place with formal
services, led by a professional chazzan. My dad wore a robe and high
hat — black during the year and white on the High Holy Days.
[Tzvee Zahavy is at the right of his father, Rabbi Zev Zahavy, in the synagogue sukkah in 5715.]
was famous in the city for his sermons. He labored over them for hours.
He would send "releases" to the local papers (like The New York Times.
In its archives I have found 230+ citations of his sermons) to let them
know about what he would be preaching on Saturday. Those were the ’50s,
and the Times and other papers covered the Saturday and Sunday sermons.
Frequently we would look around the sanctuary to see if the reporter
from the Times was present. We’d know because he’d sit in the back and
be writing feverishly on his reporter’s pad. My father was ambitious,
especially about increasing the attendance at services. We had to count
the number of people in shul and discuss that at the lunch table. Then
he’d ask us how the sermon was and we all answered enthusiastically
every week, "It was terrrrrrific!"
High points of
my childhood were often linked to Jewish holidays and to the shul.
Simchat Torah was especially great. I was permitted on that one day to
ascend to the bimah and sit in my father’s velvet chair. In those days,
that was considered a wild thing to allow a child to do in shul.
[Cong. Zichron Ephraim, now the Park East Synagogue, where Rabbi Zev Zahavy was religious leader.]
Pesach, hundreds of congregants attended the public seder at our shul.
Our family flanked my father on the elevated dais in the shul’s social
hall as he conducted the seder. As a kid, I loved this seder, mainly
because of the seltzer bottles that we had at the meal. There was
nothing in the world that tasted better than a good little serving of
Concord grape wine with a solid shpritz of seltzer. And by the end of
the night we were shpritzing each other with seltzer. What fun.
the time came to return the afikomen, I always had a demand for a
rather large and expensive toy, which my father naturally promised to
get me. I always did get an official afikomen present — but rarely the
one I asked for.
It was naturally expected but
never articulated that when I grew up I’d become a pulpit rabbi. I
prepared for that career all the way through ordination at Yeshiva
University. But then I found another calling. I chose to become a
professor of Judaism rather than a rabbi.
written seven books about Jewish texts and rituals, mostly about prayer
and praying. The reasons behind my choice of topics of my academic
scholarly research are in fact heavily personal. I’ve cared about
Jewish prayer all of my life.