When my Father was Rabbi at the Park East Synagogue

Praying and the synagogue were central to my life since my early childhood. My father, Zev Zahavy, 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 was off to the side of the main sanctuary, lined with books, filled with a musty smell and having the creakiest wood floor I ever walked on.
The author (right) with his Dad (center) in 5715 in the synagogue sukkah

The synagogue in Manhattan at that time was a stately place with formal services, led by a professional Hazzan. My dad wore a robe and high hat - black during the year and white on the High Holy Days.

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 NY Times' 230+ citations of his sermons -- here in online book form) to let them know about what he would be preaching on Saturday. Those were the fifties 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. (Not iPad... real paper pad.)

My father was ambitious especially about increasing the attendance at the 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 oft times 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.

On Pesach hundreds of congregants attended the big collective 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 real 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 shul 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 cared about Jewish prayer all of my life. I've written ten 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.

-repost from 3/6/06


thanbo said...

Who was your father? R' Herbert Goldstein?

Tzvee Zahavy said...

My father is Zev Zahavy, now 87, imush. He grew up Zev Goldstein. When he was hired as assistant rabbi at WSIS, there were 2 Rabbi Goldsteins, a source of some confusion. He was an ardent Zionist. So he changed his name to Zahavy. Then he went on the Ohev Zedek as associate rabbi and to Zichron Ephraim as rabbi. Thanks for asking.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, and way too short, meditation on your father (may he be well), shuls in Manhattan --my hometown, too -- and prayer. Tears in my eyes, since I love davening, and big, old, wonderful shuls, too.
Thank you.

Talmudist said...

Love 'em caps - ah, that bygone era...