In orthodox fashion, in the synagogues, the males had the center stage and the women were relegated to the background, seated in a separate section. I was with my grandfather at services in a Debrezen synagogue when I first became aware of the cadence of the devote during prayers. With yarmulkes on their heads and their shoulders wrapped in prayer shawls, they would ‘shuckle,’ sway back and forth while standing and praying. Different men had different tempos, some short and rapid swaying while others were long and slow. I did not know the reason, but I tried to match the timing of my grandfathers ‘shuckles’. In time I learned to set up my own cadence to suit my thoughts, and murmur my studied adaptation of sounds to simulate the sounds of praying, while my thoughts were not on religion. I was intrigued for a while, with how the men’s twisted sideburns or pius, swung in arcs across their cheeks. By tilting my head I could make one pius brush my face while the other side dangled loosely. Prayer time, for me, was an opportunity to explore non-religious interests while giving the illusion that I was rapt in prayer.
While my grandparents remained in Europe, my mother and my two brothers returned to America to join my father. We lived in Red Hook, the docking and shipyard section of Brooklyn, New York. On holy days we would walk to the nearest synagogue, Bnai Israel, which was near Boro Hall, two miles away. When I was eleven, the simmering awakening of adolescence made me aware of the girls isolated from the center stage of the temple and services. However, they were cropping up in the center stage in the temple of my thoughts. I ‘shuckled’ and murmured my convincing sounds of prayer while my mind explored the non-religious potential of growing up.
Morris in the adjacent pew was almost thirteen and a head taller than I was. My lower rib cage was at the height of the back of the pew in front of us, while his hips were at that height. He had a varied ‘shuckling’ cadence, at times slow and at times with increased frequency, followed by periods on stillness. Covertly I watched him and noted that he would contact the back of the pew while ‘shuckling’. The slow cadence increased as the services continued, and usually when the ark was opened and my father, along with others, covered their eyes in the opening prayer, Morris had achieved his cadence with increased vigor. Then his ‘shuckling’ stopped, his face seemed flushed, and his eyes had a faraway look as he seemed to look into the future, accompanied by low, suppressed gasps, which at first I thought was reverent awe, spewed from his trembling lips. By the time the torah had been removed and everyone was seated, Morris was quietly staring ahead, wrapped in awesome thought. I was curious and wanted to find what religious inspiration gave him such rapture.
I was in a bathroom stall during a lull in services when I heard Morris and his friend Hy’s voices coming into the room. It was an opportunity to eavesdrop on their conversation so I lifted my legs to hide the fact that I was present. I heard them shuffling about as they looked to see if anyone was on a toilet in the stalls. They thought the room was empty, and Morris exuberantly told Hy, “Wow! Just at the moment that the rabbi opened the ark, I came. It was terrific.”
“Who was it this time?” Hy questioned.
“Lillian, with the big tits,” Morris smirked. “How did you make out?”
“Not good. I was thinking of Gussie at the beginning of the services, and I got excited and dumped my load. My shorts and pants are stained,” Hy admitted.
“Smuck! Didn’t you follow my advice?”
“Sure I did. I used one of my sister’s fancy hankies, but it must have slipped off.”
“Mine didn’t. Next time use a bigger handkerchief. I did and I made sure the rubber bands held them tightly wrapped and ready.” Morris lectured. Then they stopped talking as someone entered the room. I heard them leave and I lowered my feet and buttoned my pants. When the man using the urinal, flushed it and left. I waited a few minutes and returned to the services.
During the rest of the services, I reviewed what I had heard that day. I realized that I found the answer to the religious inspiration that gave Morris such rapture. At times before, between, and after services, I overheard some of the older boys engaged in private conversations about the girls. They described in detail the various girls and their physical attributes and sexuality. The boys would describe their fantasized involvement or engagement with different girls that stimulated their imagination and urges. Younger boys, like myself, were never included in their conversations or camaraderie.
During the following year, I had grown taller and at the proper height to exploit the back of the pew ahead of me, for stimulation assistance. I was practiced and in shape for the coming High Holidays. In my fantasy, in a secluded room of my mind, I had my harem of ten favorite wives, plus a countless array of concubines of all races and faiths. I would savor different wives as the Yom Kippur service progressed, and then I would summon my chosen one for the ultimate finale. My selected one’s stature, her long braided hair, and full breasts, reminded me of my favorite aunt Mariska in Hungary. As a child in Hungary, I used to secretly spy on my aunt as she undressed for bed. My selected one for this great occasion was Pearl, the aging Rabbi’s young wife. In my fantasy, I freed Pearl from the clutches of the rabbi, made her my favorite wife and renamed her, Mariska.
After sampling different wives, I took Pearl for the ecstatic climax that would happen during the blowing if the shoffer. As the rabbi picked up the shoffer’ my ‘shuckling’ cadence increased, as did my mumbled imitation prayers. Then I felt my father’s firm hand on my shoulder, and saw his angry disapproving look, as he pulled me back and away from the back of the pew.
I realized that once upon a time, long ago, my father had been a young boy.