A holiday memoir: Why I care about Jewish prayer

By Tzvee Zahavy | Published 09/30/2007 | Last Word |

Praying 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.]

He 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.]

On 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.

When 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.

I’ve 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.