She stood outside in the dark, hands held together, waiting for the prayer to end. It was a hot sticky Friday night, though the shul was reasonably cool thanks to the air conditioning that had recently been installed by an energetic member of our congregation, a cooling engineer. My father and I, always sitting at one of the back benches, were among the first to walk out through the double glass doors at the back.
She greeted us with a respectful stand atop the small flight of stairs that led through the modest garden into the street.
“Excuse me, may I pray at your Temple?”
My father paused to examine her. She was nice looking, properly dressed, in her early-to-mid thirties. Her medium length blond hair was conservatively tucked. It was not clear how she had arrived at our synagogue. There were many diplomat families living around the area, but not anywhere within walking distance, and there weren’t many churches around here, certainly not ones that would be open on a Friday night. She had no bag in her hands, though she might have left it in her car out of respect. Perhaps she walked all the way here? Was it a matter of some urgency? Or was it some deep sudden longing that could not suffer waiting?
“Of course,” my father offered with an inviting gesture, happy to demonstrate the progressive face of our religion. “You are very welcome to come in.”
Yechiel Sokolovsky, or ‘Reb Yechiel’, as my father would address him in a fond gesture to their shared heritage from back there, appeared from behind us, cane in hand, with a slight left limp. He was a short statured man in his late seventies with a short pointed beard, who, unlike us Israeli’s, kept a strict three-piece european attire complete with a golden chain pocket watch even in the midst of the Israeli summer. Sokolovsky was the only person besides the Rabbi and his sons who had a seat at the eastern wall. What had earned him that special honor was not something I occupied myself with. To me he has always been a fixture of the synagogue, as much as the Bima and the Aron Kodesh.
Reb Yechiel Sokolovsky stopped to examine the goings on. “She would like to come in and pray” my father hurried to explain, in English. “I told her that she is, of course, very welcome”. Reb Yechiel Sokolovsky paused and thought for a while. His eyes narrowed with a slight grin, coupled with a shrewd squint.
“But vich god are you going to pray for? Da jewish one or da christian one?” he asked her in a heavy Eastern European accent that I doubted she could fully understand.
“I believe any place of prayer is a holy temple” the woman replied sincerely “and that God hears all prayers that come from the heart.”
Sokolovsky’s grin widened into a full smile. He seemed somewhat amused and was now pacing slightly from side to side, contemplating the best way to get his point across.
“Yes, but dis is a jewish praying place. It’s da jewish god that you will be praying to.”
“No no no, it doesn’t matter,” my father hastily intervened, “this god, that god — it’s all the same thing.” He waved his hand in a way that would have undoubtedly sounded better in Yiddish.
“Ohh…it’s not at all da same ting,” Sokolovsky protested.
My father waved his hand again, impatiently. “Please go ahead, don’t listen to him,” he said to the woman, smiling. Sokolovsky paused for a second, and then proceeded to limp down the short flight of stairs with the help of his cane while shaking his head in bemused disagreement.
We followed the woman with our gazes for a while as she carefully walked in and stood still at the back of the hall, her hands covering her face.
“All the poor woman wants is to pray,” my father muttered as we walked away, “and imagine Sokolovsky pouncing on her like that with his cleverly eyes.”