All I Need to Know

Where should I begin this particular chapter: at the beginning, which was several years ago; the prologue, which is the beginning of the beginning, almost sixty years ago; the beginning of what’s important in the narrative, four or five months ago; or what’s happening now, starting, say, two months ago? Decisions, decisions…….. Let me tell it this way and hope you can follow along.

A number of years ago (at the beginning, if you’re keeping track), person or persons whose names will not be revealed had the bright idea for an additional minyan weekday mornings. There was always a 5:45-5:50 minyan, (when I say ‘always,’ I mean thirty years ‘always’), which was fine for those who were prepared to stagger out of their apartments at this ungodly hour of the day, probably because they have to get to work or have sleep issues. No surprise, that was never a lot of guys who fit the bill (it certainly wasn’t me), and it was hit-or-miss whether the requisite number would show up. But, it was pointed out, there are a lot of us in a different category, perhaps being either retired or working from home, who might be interested in a minyan at a more civilized hour, say 8AM.

There are lots of gevaldig ideas floating around out there, ignored, unacted on, usually for one simple reasons: no one to take charge, getting off one’s duff and doing something about it. No one proposing the new minyan was prepared to go beyond the thought process stage. Even so, it would have required someone who could communicate with both the English and Hebrew speakers in our community and who knew enough to run a minyan, and who would that person be? It wasn’t going to happen, but if by some miracle it did, I agreed to show up to help in the head count.

Fast forward several years (we’re now at the ‘beginning of what’s important in the narrative stage’), when the pandemic had begun to smother The Land. The synagogue was reduced to having minyans of ten for the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers, weekdays and Shabbat (as in you-can sign-up-in-advance-and-that’s-it). And just then, Rav Ezra decided to start the long-awaited 8AM minyan, figuring the more minyans you have, the more people you can accommodate.

I did say I would show up, so I began setting my alarm and trudging to shul. That situation lasted a week or two, whereupon all Israel was placed in lockdown, the 8AM minyan being one of the many, many activities that simply disappeared.

Months later, during the phony period when everything was supposed to be OK, the shul slowly re-opened, with limited numbers of participants at the various minyans. (Be wearing a mask, or be gone.) Rav Ezra was at it again – with a slight variation: this time a 7:45AM minyan.

Did I want to participate? Do I ever want to show up at a morning minyan during the week, when I can pray in the comfort of my living room? No, I do not, but especially not now when you have this thing on your face, which makes it even harder for me to concentrate – and it’s hard enough to begin with.

However, as the saying goes, you can run but you can’t hide. I was sharing my concerns about Natania and Gil’s wedding plans with Rav Ezra, sometime in the beginning of July, and, being Rav Ezra (not the beat-around-the-bush personality), he hit me up for the minyan. Think quick. You need some kind of excuse why not. But try as I might, I couldn’t think of any plausible reason – one that I could utter with a straight face – why I couldn’t make it. No job to go to, no dogs to walk, no kids to get up, no pressing engagements, no prohibiting health issues.  Was I going to plead extreme laziness? All right, I’ll show up.

As I came to realize, Rav Ezra really did need me. The 5:45 minyan has been put on the shelf temporarily because of sub-minimal participation. It would be up to us later-time arrivals to uphold the honor of the beit knesset. And we have been barely scraping by. No need to worry about the shul being over-crowded! Somehow, though, we’ve been able to scrape a minyan together, which is some sort of minor miracle.

Let’s look at the cast of characters who show up at 7:45 (give or take). Some of us are there all the time or almost all the time. But that’s not enough. Then there are a few who show up some of the time. Together, that’s often not enough. We also have a few mysterious souls who come for a while, then disappear, then show up, and disappear again. We often need them, as well. Plus, we have the random dudes who show up out of the blue one morning and are never seen or heard from again; those unexpected visitors have saved the day more than once.

And that’s what I’ve begun wondering about. How is it that our minyan depends upon the participation of an irregular band of volunteers, enough of whom manage to show up day by day so that we have ten, sometimes, twelve, but never more than fourteen at a time?

What’s the story? How does this work? Someone has to think about these matters, so why not me? I began to put my imagination in overdrive and think of some possible scenarios.

What prompted me on this path was something I had just read, The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, many of which are, as the book’s editor, Susan Dick, describes them either ‘fictional reveries’ or ‘scenes’ and ‘sketches,’ early experiments that Woolf used to teach herself how to write.

Learning to write, a sore point with me. Maybe you can identify with how I felt these many years ago (now we’re back at the beginning of the beginning). There I was, a young student at City College, ‘living’ at Mott Hall, where the English literature and ancient languages classes (Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon) were taught. To fill out my schedule, I signed up for a class in short story writing. Our instructor went over a few well-anthologized stories with us and then told us to write a short story of our own and bring it in the following week. What do I do now? I was about twenty- years old, a sheltered Jewish lad from The Bronx with just enough life experience to fit into my book bag. What could I possibly write about? I know nothing!!! I handed in something every week to satisfy the course requirements, but that’s about it. At the end of the semester, our instructor made a definitive announcement in class that anyone who didn’t get an ‘A’ in his class would never succeed as a writer. Who says, I thought to myself, what do you know? It’s good to be told in advance that you will be a total failure. Saves you from making an effort.

Maybe that’s what I should do now, write a reverie or a sketch about how it is that a total stranger shows up at our shul just when we need a tenth man. That’s what Virginia Woolf might have done, and there’s no better writer for me to imitate. But there’s another principle that I take to heart: Write about what you know. And, let’s face it, while I’ve been here in The Land for thirteen years, I’m still a stranger in a strange land. Except for my cadre of family, friends, and acquaintances, I have zero sense of why people here behave the way I do. Writing about what motivates total strangers would bring me back to my student days when I knew I was clueless, that I couldn’t write about what I didn’t know.

Perhaps I should just accept the obvious: that the right number of people seems always to be there is some sort of nes, a minor miracle of sorts. Maybe that’s enough of a story. As Keats could have said, that is all I know on earth and all I need to know.

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