Book Serialization Part 2: Six People You Meet in Synagogue
For 2013. We present our book in serial format on our blog - God's Favorite Prayers...
intr.v. da·vened, da·ven·ing, da·vens
1. To recite Jewish liturgical prayers.
2. To sway or rock lightly.
[From the Yiddish davnen, דאַוונען.]
1. A building or place of meeting for worship and religious instruction in the Jewish faith.
2. A congregation of Jews for the purpose of worship or religious study.
3. The Jewish religion as organized or typified in local congregations.
—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 2009
was born Jewish and raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, but not an entirely stereotypical one. My mother grew up as an American-born Reform Jew in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. She went to New York City public schools and then got her BA and MA degrees at Hunter College. My father was reared in an American-Orthodox family. Both of his parents were born in the U.S. He too went to New York City public schools, then to a yeshiva for high school and to Yeshiva University for his college degree, for his rabbinic ordination and for his PhD.
At some point, my young professional mother enrolled in a Hebrew class that my young rabbi dad was teaching. Romance followed. After they married, my mom became Orthodox in her faith and practice. In her role as a dutiful rabbi’s wife, she obtained the venerable honorary title of rebbetzin.
For an American Jewish family like my dad’s to retain its orthodoxy was not a common story during the decades of the great assimilation prior to WWII. The currents sweeping Jews away from religion were strong during that era. But my mom and dad swam against the currents. I inherited a strong commitment to Judaism from both of my parents.
I was born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where my father was a dynamic figure on the New York rabbinical scene. He served as a rabbi for two decades, from 1941 to 1961. First, before he married, he played rabbi out in the “minor leagues” in small Jewish communities in Lexington, Kentucky and Omaha, Nebraska. After that, he served in the “big leagues” in pulpits in Orthodox synagogues in New York City. He presided first on New York’s West Side at the West Side Institutional Synagogue (WSIS) as assistant rabbi.
It was there in 1947 that he changed his name from Goldstein to Zahavy. He was inspired by the Zionist movement and felt the calling to Hebraize his name, as many other activists and visionaries of that era did.
The senior rabbi at the WSIS was the well-known Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein. When my dad started to serve as a rabbi there, he approached Rabbi Goldstein and told him of his motivations and his idealistic plans to change his name to Zahavy.
The senior Rabbi Goldstein endorsed my father’s idealism and then suggested another more mundane motivation for his support of the planned name change. Partly in jest, he explained to the junior rabbi that he had been concerned. If a check had come in to the synagogue made out to Rabbi Goldstein, he had feared that, with two rabbis of the same name, there might be some confusion. Hence, he was happy to hear that my father was going to change his name.
After his stint at the WSIS, my rising-star dad moved uptown a few blocks to Congregation Ohev Zedek, where he was appointed associate rabbi. Following that, he moved on to assume the pulpit as senior rabbi at the swanky Upper East Side Congregation Zichron Ephraim (now named the Park East Synagogue).
From the age of three, I grew up on the East Side on Sixty-eighth Street and Third Avenue, in New York’s so-called silk stocking congressional district. Not a very spiritual setting. There were few Orthodox children around for me to play with in my neighborhood. Many of Manhattan’s Orthodox families lived down on the Lower East Side or uptown on the West Side. I attended Manhattan Day School, a progressive Zionist oriented elementary yeshiva day school on the west side of the park.