Our maternal grandfather, Jacob Stark, parked himself day in and day out in an orthodox synagogue down the street from his family
home where he would pass the hours wailing in prayer. When women and children were allowed to attend, I begged Grandmom Lizzy to take me along. As is the custom at orthodox synagogues, women are relegated to the upstairs level. The ground floor is sacred, reserved solely for the alpha males who don “tefillin.” I would lean way over the balcony and observe the men looping black leather bands around their forearms, trapping underneath small hollowed boxes. Grandmom said that they contained verses from the Torah. To me, it was like a Houdini trick to fit all those prayers written on parchment into this teensy square container.
All the men wore sad dark suits, the only embellishment a “tallis,” the white silky scarf draped long around their necks. With the tips of his fingers, Grandpop would hypnotically knead the tassels along the border of his tallis and occasionally bring them up to his pursed lips like a little kiss, as his body swayed back and forth in solemn verse. This was serious stuff and although I found the yowling exotic as though in a foreign land, it made me uncomfortable and a little bit nauseous.