Like most religious Jews growing up in America in the 50s and 60s, I davened Nusach Ashkenaz.* True, there were a few shtieblach where Nusach Sefard was the custom, but the overwhelming majority of synagogues had siddurim reflecting the Ashkenaz custom, albeit with a smattering of Sefard siddurim, usually tucked away on an aging wooden bookshelf in the back corner.
During my years in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, I rented a small townhouse apartment. When I did not spend Shabbat on campus, I found myself frequenting a small shul, the only Orthodox minyan in the downtown area. The gabbai, Avraham Bronfeld, would greet me with his thick Polish accent and a warm smile, flashing his gold fillings, always making sure I had a place to eat. Shortly after the Second World War, Avraham and his second wife Sarah, both Holocaust survivors, moved to Philadelphia and opened a small children’s clothing store. They never had children.
On my first visit to the shul, Avraham escorted me to the hard wooden seat next to him and handed me a siddur. I recall my consternation when I saw the word Sefard on the cover, undoubtedly causing me to feel even more out of place. I opened the siddur cautiously, not knowing what kind of prayers I would encounter. I can still hear the gentle lilt of words and phrases running the course of the two-hour service from Shacharit to Mussaf as I enunciated them for the first time.
It wasn’t only the sardines and home-baked challah that enchanted me for seudah shelishit, which they invited me to attend weekly. The whole Shabbat atmosphere seemed to impart a magical, old-world, holy aura to the prayers, something I had never experienced before. Somehow, it all felt oddly familiar. I remember, as well, asking my new friend Avraham one Shabbat after Maariv if I could borrow a siddur, as I had decided to integrate this new nusach into my daily prayers. When he promptly handed me his siddur, I felt as if he were my own grandfather, my guide, giving me something special and precious on my bar mitzvah day. As I made my way down the cobblestone streets past Colonial-era gas lamps, clutching my new siddur, I felt as if I had acquired something that would help me fill in the mosaic of my family tree, a tradition I was slowly discovering.
For many years, long after I had finished my medical studies and moved out of Philly, long after my friend had died and both the children’s clothing store and the small shul had closed their doors, I continued praying with this siddur, which had become a trusted companion that I turned to three times a day.
I must confess that while I felt more and more familiar with the “new” nusach, I harbored a sense of guilt. Perhaps I had abandoned the custom of my father and my ancestors. Perhaps I was not being true to my family tradition.
On one of my trips to my family home in Pittsburgh, I resolved to ask my father what the nusach of our family was.
“Dad, tell me . . .” I inquired, sure I would either be exonerated or totally shamed by his answer.
“Well, I daven Nusach Ashkenaz, simply because that was the tradition in the school I attended,” he said.
“But,” I quickly asked, “what about Zeide . . . what was his nusach?”
“To tell you the truth, son, I don’t really know.”
A few months later, I again returned to Pittsburgh. I had occasion to daven at Congregation Poale Zedeck, the central Ashkenazic shul in Squirrel Hill. I recall reaching the sanctuary early that Friday afternoon. Immediately, I began my ritual, usually futile, of looking for a Nusach Sefard siddur. Within seconds, I heard a penetrating voice in the back ask, “What are you looking for?” When I explained my quest, the man, wearing Chassidic garb, immediately pulled two siddurim out of the archaic wooden bookshelf in the back corner. “This one is for me—I daven Nusach Sefard, of course. And I save this one for guests. Here, take it,” he offered, “but be sure to give it back.”
With much appreciation, I took the worn, faded orange-covered siddur and sat down. “How eerie,” I thought. “This stranger and I are the only ones in the sanctuary, and here is my cherished prize.”
But what I could never have imagined at that moment was the surprise and implosion of feeling that overtook me as I opened the siddur and found, stamped inside the cover, my Zeide’s name, “Asher Zelig Dickman,” and address, “Wiley Ave, Hill District, Pittsburgh,” in ink as clear and fresh as if stamped only today! I hadn’t seen my Zeide in over fifty years!
I proceeded to daven the Friday night service with tears of devotion and gratitude. I felt as if my Zeide were accompanying me, embracing me firmly and warmly. I wished the prayer service would somehow never end. But it did, and after a sigh and a brief kiss, I dutifully returned the siddur to the bookshelf.
I never again found the siddur, or the old chassid, despite many attempts at rummaging through the old siddurim in the back corner of the sanctuary.
My journey stretched from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, New York to Jerusalem and back, extending over half a century. Sometimes it takes what seems to be a lifetime to have our prayers answered.
* Chassidut introduced kabbalistic themes into the traditional Ashkenaz siddur. The result became known as Nusach Sefard.
Dr. Moshe Dickman currently resides in Jerusalem where he is assistant professor of neurology at the Hadassah Medical Center. He has a clinical neurology practice, specializing in ADHD and movement disorders.