His/her heart was not young and gay. It was withering, somber and distant. I could no longer hear that voice from on high since the April day two years earlier when PresidentRoosevelt died. FDR’s name was one long word. I knew no other president. He intoned my version of God. I was now fourteen. I know this because I was called in to make a minyan. Called in to what was already a familiar and sacred place.
My father’s corner drugstore, Kew Forest Pharmacy, was a few yards from the apartment house where we lived. What was once a thriving location on a heavily-trafficked street had suffered a fatal blow when the Grand Central Parkway was built a few years before I was born. His store became inaccessible to most of his customer base. I didn’t know this till years later. The store limped along for about a dozen more years until he went bankrupt during the war.
It was an elongated shape with a soda fountain and ten stools plus a couple of booths where high schoolers would sit for hours at a time sipping a cherry coke with two straws. The prescription department was in the rear signified by two globes of colored water and a raised platform where my father presided.
The wall on the outside became my own personal ballpark where I would throw a pink Spaldeen or tennis ball. I was pitcher, batter and fielder all in one. It also had an essential ledge. If I hit that ledge, I could soar higher than a pop fly. I beat those balls against the wall so many times it became my portal to enter and I later became my father.
The drugstore went dark with glass wax on the windows around 1943 or ’44. It remained vacant for several years. I passed it daily on my way to everywhere. One morning, with my 1st baseman’s mitt soaked with neatsfoot oil, I was stopped and yanked into those familiar walls. The pharmacy had become a storefront synagogue with a modest congregation. Once determined that I was a Bar Mitzvah boy I became the tenth man.
All I remember is dropping my baseball mitt for the requisite yarmulke and shawl, several barouches and davening. The arcane words held no meaning for me nor did it arouse my sense of the spiritual. Drugstore vapors had been replaced by a musty odor. As the other nine men worshipped the Torah, I saw, instead, my father in his place reverently dispensing kindness and wise counsel to his own congregants while crude drugs and botanicals escaped from apothecary jars like some aromatic intoxicant.
I was done with Yahweh. He’d been replaced by my father who, in turn, became interjected into me. We become our own Yahweh, our own shepherd and assume that self-possession to see us through the pilgrimage. The way ahead is not promised; it is earned, all stumbles forgiven. There were to be no prayers, no petitions to any grand puppeteer. We are here to enrich our habitat, share it and care for each other, nothing less. I have come to reject religion, the noun, in favor of the adjective as in religious experience for which there is no prescribed behavior.
Transcendent moments come least of all in a house of worship. They arrive as my father did, unbidden, with my heart open as a deep harbor.