Before Arvit

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November 5, 2009

My grandfather told me when I was a little boy that if I watched while the priests were reciting their three-part blessing I would surely die. He whispered those words to me, in this very room, and then he pulled his prayer shawl over my head so that I could not see. I was almost a bar mitzvah boy before I was courageous enough to look, and to this day I am always a little bit nervous when I do it, which I always do. So it was, this morning, that I peered up through the folds in my own prayer shawl, and I saw him standing there, the visitor, that cousin of the rabbi everyone has been talking about, come all the way from Egypt to teach here.

His hands were raised in priestly benediction, fingers split and spread beneath his prayer shawl. On either side of him two other kohanim stood, hands raised but hidden, in the same gesture. To his right, my mother’s cousin Judah, and to his left, the rabbi’s son-in-law, Omar. Both of them were taller than he, and I wondered about his age. And then, all of a sudden, his tallit slipped down over his arms, just as they began the third blessing. And I saw his face, face of a man my own age, or slightly older, a dark intense face, large of nose, thick of beard, high of brow. I meant to look down, but in that brief moment – he looked out over the congregation, and his eyes caught mine. I should have looked down, but my eyes were locked in his gaze. I could not look away. Then they began the third blessing. “May God show you kindness and grant you peace.” And he did something that nearly did kill me. He smiled. He smiled a slightly crooked smile, a devastatingly wide and beautiful smile. I could swear it wasn’t the light of the lamps burning overhead that illuminated the room, but his smile, shot into my heart like the sun’s arrows at dawn. Shot through an opening in the shutters of my window, awakening me in my bed. His arms raised above his head in ancient blessing, his tallit slipped down on his thick dark arms, this rabbi from Fostat smiled at me.

This is why I got here so early, so much before the evening service begins. This is why I am standing in my place, long before my brothers have gotten here, who always arrive before me, and tease me about it. And this is why I am standing with my back to the ark, facing the doorway, so that I can see him when he comes in. But what will I do if he doesn’t come? If he comes but doesn’t see me? If he sees me but does not smile again?

My grandmother, alone, up in the women’s balcony, waves down at me. I nod up to her, too nervous to wave back. And then he comes in, his arm linked through his cousin’s. They are talking, but his eyes are darting around the room. My heart swells. And he sees me. He sees me and – he smiles again, that same smile, now perhaps even broader, if that is possible. And I feel the muscles of my face pull my own face up into a smile, faster than a runner making his way from city to city on foot, faster than the swiftest horse on a battlefield – as he slips his arm out from his cousin’s – as he pauses and drops his arms to his side. And takes a long slow breath, then begins to walk toward me, beneath the large golden oil lamps, newly lit by the sexton.

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