‘A Most Beloved Part of Our Service’:The Slow Procession to the Ark in a Sephardic Synagogue

On a January morning at a synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Rabbi Ira Rohde, and behind him, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, walked slowly toward the front of the building, both dressed in liturgical robes. Rohde carried a two-foot-long scroll draped with a red mantle over one shoulder, gripping the bottom with both hands. The scroll, called the Torah, meaning “instruction” or “teaching” in Hebrew, is the central document for the Jewish people and contains 613 mitzvot — or commandments — from God.  

With each step on the red carpet at Congregation Shearith Israel, the rabbi carried the Torah closer and closer to the ark — a wooden chamber, which holds the sacred text, situated on the wall of the synagogue closest to Jerusalem. 

When Jewish architect Arnold Brunner designed the synagogue in 1897, he planned a grand entrance facing Central Park, which lies at the building’s eastern end.  But after it opened, congregants using the entrance walked in front of the ark and disrupted the service. It’s now rare for anyone to use that door — the congregation instead opts for the more discreet side entrance on West 70th Street.

As Rohde and Soloveichik continued their procession, the choir, seemingly unbothered by the sound of sirens from the street outside, sang in four-part harmony, Mizmor l’david: Havu la’adonai, benei elim, havu la’adonai kavod va’oz. The Hebrew lyrics translate to: “A psalm of David: Prepare for the Lord, [you] sons of the mighty; prepare for the Lord glory and might.”   

The choir stood in a semi-circle formation on the balcony above the ark. The choirmaster, Leon Hyman, held his right hand just slightly raised, moving it less than an inch to mark each bar of music that passes. Most of the services at Shearith Israel, like those of Sephardic services generally, are designed to be sung communally. The congregation knew the tune well, and many joined the melody. There’s just one rule here: No one must sing louder than the choir.

For the Jewish people, it is through the Torah that one is connected to God — ritualistically and physically. When Rohde moved along the right side of the synagogue, women sitting on the balcony above moved towards the wooden railings to get closer. The procession toward the ark has always been particularly slow at Congregation Shearith Israel. “This is a most beloved part of our service,” said Rev. Zachary Edinger, when I spoke with him after the service. “One should part from the Torah reluctantly and never with haste.” The custom, he said, stems directly from the halakha, a collective body of Jewish laws that translates to “the path one walks.” 

At long last, Rohde ascended the brown marble steps up to the ark chamber. A row of scrolls dressed in green, blue and yellow were visible through its open doors. Rohde lowered the Torah into a space between two others. Together, he and Soloveichik slid the ark doors shut, and the congregation sat.

Teaching Zohar through a Progressive Jewish Lens

Sacred and mystical Jewish texts are usually studied at home or in the synagogue. But on a recent evening in Manhattan, a progressive Jewish community read the Zohar, a text of Jewish mysticism written in the 13th century in Spain, while seated around a checkered tablecloth at Cowgirl, a non-kosher, Texas-style restaurant at 519 Hudson Street. They were celebrating the festival of Tu Bishvat, which marks the awakening of the trees of the Holy Land. Eight members of The New Shul celebrated by ordering fruit-laced drinks. 

The New Shul is a progressive Jewish organization founded in 1999 that explores Judaism through a creative, inclusive, and modern lens, said Rabbi Misha Shulman. Tu Bishvat, on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, is a minor festival, more often celebrated by the Orthodox community. But on this Saturday evening, The New Shul community recaptured some of the mystical elements of the faith.  

Zohar is the text of Jewish mysticism, Shulman said. “It is an Aramaic text of Kabbalah written in the 13th century in Spain.”   

The table was filled with sangria, frozen margaritas, red and white wine, a bowl of fried okra, and nachos for everyone to share.  

“I brought a bag of fruit for us too,” Shulman said. He then said a blessing over the fruit, took a sip of his sangria and began to read the first page of the stapled packet of Zohar chapters from the Idra Rabba Qadusha (Greater Holy Assembly): 

And it is written (Ecclesiastes 5.6): Suffer not your mouth to cause thy flesh to sin. 

For neither does the world remain firm, except through secrets. And in worldly affairs there be so great a need for secrets…

One congregant, Susan Meyers, asked: “What is the meaning of secrets here?” 

Shulman slightly grinned at the question. “Remember not to read this text too literally,” he said. “Secrets can be interpreted as knowledge that cannot be fully understood by people — the text continues to say that these secrets are ‘matters not even revealed unto the highest angels.’” 

One congregant nodded, reassured, as another snapped her fingers in agreement. 

It had been nearly 30 minutes of reading and discussing the Zohar. The first round of drinks and appetizers were nearly finished. 

The secret of the Lord YHVH is with them that fear Him… 

Nina Kaufelt leaned forward and turned her body toward Shulman as she asked, “Why is YHVH written here, instead of Adonai?” Shulman responded that this is a literary text, not prayer, so it was fine to read YHVH aloud. 

Those around the table took turns reading aloud, starting to raise their voices as the restaurant filled up. 

“It is often said that you shouldn't read Kabbalah until you are 40,” Shulman said glancing meaningfully at Serena Sarch, 27, and me. 

In two hours, we had made it halfway through the 12-page packet. Groups of people were constantly filtered in and out of the restaurant. The waiters periodically cleared the table and asked if anyone wanted anything else whenever there was a break in teaching. Shulman ordered another sangria. He finished teaching in the wooden booth beneath a warm-yellow chandelier with carved, deer-shaped antlers, a rustic-framed picture of cowgirls, and a horseshoe.

Druze Faith: A Philosophy Carried From Past to Present 

Members of the Druze faith are scattered all over New York City; there is no house of worship where they can meet. Prayer is not central to the Druze religion, which makes a house of worship much less important than for other religions. In the Druze faith, not everyone identifies as religious. There are the initiated, who wear distinct garb and read the holy books, and the uninitiated who do not. 

Still, all Druze are connected by their values and beliefs.

“It is a way of life,” said Wassim Malaeb, owner of Samad’s Gourmet, a small deli at Broadway and 111th Street in Manhattan. Malaeb, 54, will eagerly tell you that he is not religious, but he has become an informal teacher of the religion for many students at the nearby Columbia University who have questions about the Druze. 

Malaeb is a Lebanese Druze; there are also Druze communities in Syria and Israel. There are fewer than one million members of the Druze faith, only 10 percent of whom are initiated in the faith’s religious practices.

Malaeb is always happy to provide over-the-counter wisdom about his faith. While he’s not formally religious, he says he feels more connected to his faith with every passing year. Still, he describes the Druze faith more as a philosophy than a religion — he says it “summarizes everything.”

A foundational principle of the Druze is the belief in reincarnation. The Druze’s holy book: Kitab al-Hikma, the Book of Wisdom, is only available to religious Druze. Thus, teaching holy scriptures or extensive religious services are not central to the community. You learn these principles through your upbringing, or between the vessels filled with nuts and spices in Samad’s Gourmet.

“Those who remember their past life are people who died too young and are still attached to life,” Malaeb said. He knows of one soul that he met twice in his lifetime, which is his proof that people are reincarnated. The moment of reincarnation is most visible within children: babies that cry are dreaming about their past lives; babies who are born dead are examples of souls that did not transfer.

Malaeb believes that God is within him. This is what allows him to move his body; it is the connection between body and soul. He also believes that this life affects the next — if you have been a good person, your next life will be much easier. 

While Malaeb might not remember his own past life; his current life of food service and informal teaching can only mean that he was good in the previous one.

The Upshernish: A Celebratory Haircut Connecting Father to Son, Teacher to Student

In his three years of life, Yechiel Zeev Mergui’s mocha-colored hair had never met a scissor’s blades. The untouched strands — uniform in length, not yet growing peyot, or sidelocks — still told the story of when he first entered the world. 

On a Sunday afternoon in Forest Hills, Queens, with the last rays of sun scattering through the gray clouds, the Mergui family and their closest friends, family, and Chabad-Lubavitch community members gathered in the ballroom of Young Israel Synagogue at 7100 Yellowstone Boulevard to celebrate Yechiel’s Upshernish, or “hair-cutting” on his third birthday, according to the Hebrew calendar. With this ceremonial haircut, his peyot would now be visibly distinct from the rest of his hair. 

Peyot represent maturing of a Jewish male’s religious education — similar to fruits growing on a tree. Just like a tree is bare of fruits in its first three years, so too is a Jewish child who has not yet begun their formal education. TheTorah compares man to a tree, often comparing trees to Jewish education. Yechiel’s mother designed the centerpieces of each table to resemble a tree on top of emerald tablecloths where white plates adorned with golden accents were neatly placed at each seat– emerald and gold, the two prominent colors splashed throughout the room’s decor.

Greetings of “Shalom” and “Mazel Tov” echo throughout the room as guests  begin to stream into the ballroom to enjoy each other’s company and await the coming-of-age ritual that so many Jewish boys have observed. The celebration has all the trappings of any young child’s dream birthday party; a coloring station, children running all around, and a table filled with sweets. 

Before the Upshernish began, the men joined in their daily afternoon prayer. Promptly, after the prayer concluded, the guests began to fill their plates with fresh bread, pita, hummus, pasta, salmon— a decadent spread of choices for those lining the buffet. As stomachs began to fill over the course of socializing, and trips for seconds became less frequent, the event began with a blessing.

A long table sat facing the guests where Yechiel’s father, Rabbi Mergui, and grandfather sat. His mother gathered her son and placed him in a chair behind the table.

Rabbi Mergui’s parents traveled from France to witness this ceremony. Now that Yechiel had entered his fourth year, like a tree, his fruit was ready to be collected. Each strand cut is a collection of these fruits. 

First to cut his hair was his grandfather. While Rabbi Mergui held the piece, his own father slowly cut the first strand from the back of his son’s head. There was nothing hurried in his movement; every second seemed to be filled with intention. Rabbi Mergui cut the next piece from  Yechiel’s head. For a moment, the line between grandfather and grandson, father and son, Rabbi and student seemed to blur. 

“My father is a father, so he has the first honor to cut,” the Rabbi later said. “After that — myself.”

Family and friends were called up one by one to cut Yechiel’s hair, as the boy tended to his piece of chocolate cake.

Rabbi Mergui sees this event as a finale to his son's last three years, but also as the end of a cycle for the world. He draws this parallel as Yechiel was born around the time that the coronavirus began. 

 Drawing the Iconostasis: A Teaching Moment for a Russian Orthodox Sunday School Class

A brief and sparsely attended English-language service had just ended at the Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral, and the larger Sunday service wouldn’t begin for another hour. The cathedral, located at 15 E. 97th Street, was dimly lit and somber as a few remaining worshipers from the morning service roamed the room, silently placing candles as offerings and leaning in to kiss the icons paneling the walls.

The center of the room was nearly empty. This church has no pews; instead, its parishioners stand scattered throughout the room, facing the altar. Wooden benches line the room’s perimeter, allowing older congregants to take a break when they need. The nave, where the congregation stands, is richly adorned: icons and intricate patterns cover every inch of the walls and high, domed ceiling. Many of the icons, within their wooden frames, are covered in diamonds and strands of pearls. The iconostasis, a partition at the front of the room that separates the nave from the sanctuary, is covered in gold.

In such a setting, the two empty gray plastic benches in the center of the room looked out of place, a better fit for a high school cafeteria than a place of worship.

Suddenly, the reason for the benches became clear. A Sunday school class, with students of all ages, emerged out of a side door, holding pencils and paper and buzzing with energy, even as their teacher tried to keep them in line. They kneeled at the benches, using them as desks, gazing up at the altar and the iconostasis with their faces lit by the candlelight. With whispered words of guidance—in Russian—from their teacher, each began to draw this ornate partition.

The iconostasis, most important architectural feature of Orthodox churches, separates the sanctuary—where communion is prepared—from the nave. In early Christian times, the screen restricted access to the sanctuary for the secular without hiding it completely from congregants’ eyes. The Eucharist, or communion, is central to Orthodox worship, which is why congregants look toward the place where bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus. At Saint Nicholas, the nave is dimly lit, except for worshipers’ candles, while the sanctuary is brighter, but only partially visible.

The teacher gave the children room to focus on what stood out to them. Some drew from the ground up, gripping pencils tightly as they outlined the three steps leading to the altar. (The teacher helped one boy draw the steps in straight lines.) Others focused on the painted icons covering the closed golden gates, the “holy doors” through which only priests and deacons may pass. One girl, who spotted a priest preparing for the next service, waved her drawing so that he could see its progress. He gave her a furtive wave, his smile at odds with the solemnity of his long black cloak.

One girl, about 13, separated from the group and faced the back of the church, where she could get a better look at a large icon of Jesus hanging over the door. She was intensely focused on her drawing, leaning on her raised leg, and didn’t notice a worshiper take a pause from his movement through the sanctuary to look over her shoulder and up at the icon, appraising her work with a small smile.

Facing the back, she was the first of the children to see worshipers filing in for the morning’s main service, its liturgy in the ancient Church Slavonic language. With more offerings, the candlelight around the room grew brighter. The priests donned their golden robes, and it was time for the children to file out before the gates would open.