For years, I worked above a kosher grocery store, and the men there davened in a large meat freezer in the back. At sunset during the winter months, I could expect a knock on my office door. “We need you for a minyan—in the freezer.”
I would come down and, amid sides of beef, the men would be waiting, trying to keep warm: the baker, the produce man, the meat man, one of the Hasidic cashiers and a few of the Jewish customers, the buttoned-up Wall Street guy, the neighborhood luftmensch, a few skinny pensioners. If that wasn’t enough for a minyan, one man might ask the other: Is the dentist down the block Jewish? Can someone go schlep him here for a tzenter, a 10th man?
The longer it took to find a tzenter, the more the men, who often did not know each other, would have to interact—something they would not ordinarily do. We might learn each other’s names, exchange a little pleasantry, or perhaps something more.
Such things happen every fall and winter as the days get shorter. Mincha—the afternoon prayers—must be said before sunset; in summer this can be as late as 8:30 p.m., but in early winter, it is closer to 4 p.m. This naturally occurring phenomenon has a psychological effect on the daily minyan and its interpersonal dynamics. Sometimes there is a struggle to find the quorum of 10 men, and a race against the darkness ensues: Where can we scrounge 10 men before dark, when it’s still the middle of a work day? As it gets harder and harder to make the minyan, those who have arrived often have to wait around while others are located. And sometimes, while they’re waiting, people are forced to connect in a way they otherwise do not at a minyan.
I was only 7 or 8 years old when I was first exposed to this kind of experience. I lived at the time in a forgotten slice of Queens, a gas bubble of a gegent called Briarwood, lodged between the Van Wyck Expressway and the Grand Central Parkway. Although the neighborhood had few Jews, there was a shul about 50 yards from our apartment and I had this strange but insatiable craving for it, which my mother sent me to indulge. On fall evenings, we were often short for a minyan. While we waited for a 10th man—sometimes in vain—the day stretched into twilight, and in this waiting time, someone’s story would tumble out.
One time, against a sky orange but fast turning night-blue, Mr. Mezy, a Holocaust survivor who had been a partisan during the war, told us in his baritone voice that in his unit they would draw daily lots among the men as to who was to raid the nearby village to steal food for the group: eggs, milk, and other supplies. It was a mission from which many did not return. One time, the lots fell on him several days in a row. He sneaked into town, stole supplies, and returned to the forest under cover of darkness. “I did my job and I did it every time,” he said with manly satisfaction. “I was one of the group.”
Sometimes as stories were told, they would throw a look my way—was this story appropriate for a young child? But the group more or less accepted me as a pleasant oddity, especially once we obtained a minyan. Because I was too young to be counted as one of the 10 required men, I stood there as a child whose only job was to mimic the adults, shuckling back and forth in the Amidah, the Silent Devotion.
Another evening we were short two. Time passed and hopelessness began to make its presence felt. Instead of a ninth or 10th man, a woman in blue jeans showed up. She had come to say Kaddish for her father, she told us with hesitation as we stood on the shul stoop. The men of the shul puzzled over what to do with her. We needed a minyan, but could a woman be counted? This was, after all, the world of 1971—before even the most liberal of movements ordained women or even let them serve as members of a minyan. Even if they were to count her, they would be missing one still because I, of course, was only 8 years old.
There was not a scholar among these men, yet one of them—I don’t remember his name, but he drove a brand new Plymouth Gran Fury and worked as a letter carrier—began to reason that a kattan, a minor, could be counted for a minyan if he held a chumash, a Bible, during the service. If a kattan could be counted this way, he reasoned, then why not a woman? Why not let both the boy (referring to me) and the woman be counted?
Whereas my knowledge even then came from school learning, these men had half-remembered bits of folklore and halacha from the kheyders of a distant land, time, and place. There was Grunfeld, a Litvak plumber with a bum leg that he dragged to the bima. Sam, the Hungarian who had parachuted 300 miles behind enemy lines and whose wife had survived six bullets to the head. Schwartz, the Galitzianer whose mole on his nose made him look like a handsome etrog. Kalishman, the small-time “real-estate-nik.” All of these men, with their inchoate erudition, managed to make a boy into a man and change a woman’s gender so we could have a minyan. I was ecstatic to hold the chumash and complete the minyan, though I sensed that it smacked of a progressiveness that Orthodoxy would not tolerate.
Would God accept our prayers if we were not part of a “true” minyan? I began to wonder whether perhaps he was beside the point. After all, as I later learned, the men of tumble-down shtibls, makeshift minyanim, and even large synagogues the world over seem to get together at mincha time in that peculiar Jewish way. Not always to commune with God, but sometimes simply to be Jews.
In fact, waiting for a tzenter can have the feel of the waiting room of a bus station in Albany circa 1957. Every time the door opens someone unexpected may walk through, particularly in wintertime, when Jewish men will migrate from their usual haunts to show up at shuls and at impromptu minyans wherever they happen to be when the sun sets. Where are you from, what do you do? Do you know my cousin who lives near you?
There are the efficient mincha men. They are all business. Wherever they are, at a rest area on the New York State Thruway, a truck stop in Illinois, or at the foot of Mount Shasta, they will go up to strangers and ask: Opgedavened? Have you already davened mincha?
Then there are the others: men with lumpy sweaters, some of them with time on their hands, who stand in the glow of the orange lights on the memorial plaque in shul. They arrive early and wait patiently for “their” mincha. But as the fall progresses and the days get shorter, the mincha minyanim are thinner and more precious because, as the (late) Yogi Berra once said, “It gets late earlier now.”
The service is precisely at the point of the day when it is most difficult to gather a group. One is here, the other is there. Everyone is involved chasing the god of their own individual pursuits. Yet this is exactly when we are enjoined as a group to talk to our God—every afternoon before sundown, however early that may be.
A few years ago, on the afternoon when I found out my mother’s terminal diagnosis, even as I had to absorb that our days together had reached their full count, I felt compelled to leave her hospital bedside to pray with a minyan before dark.
I found a very ordinary house of prayer nearby on Long Island. The men there, mostly pensioners, reminded me of the men of that earliest shul in my life where my mother sent me down the block to daven. In the twilight amid their blinkered banter, I got a glimpse of their personhood. Like the men of Briarwood, in their devotion there was also disobedience, disbelief, and irreverence. Maybe someone even told a dirty joke.
These men and the mincha men of my youth were survivors already past their prime whose lives were beginning to go en hiver—into winter. They swapped stories from the war and Holocaust at dusk on the shul stoop. They gave me the idea that we were part of an eternal project and that the minyan was a piece of that eternity—as we waited patiently for a tzenter.
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