Dreaming of Synagogues


Iiron only when absolutely necessary. But washing the white button-down shirts my husband wears to synagogue on Shabbat is a household chore I enjoy. There’s quick gratification in Shout-ing out the stains like Wonder Woman, and an ease to smoothing out wrinkles (remove the shirts from the dryer while still damp and hang immediately) that eludes me in the rest of my everyday life.

And yet, I was caught off guard when I recently spotted a pile of those shirts in their designated laundry basket in our room. That I’d forgotten about them in the more than two months since we last attended Shabbat services hit me with unexpected poignancy. It was as if they were calling out from the past, reassuring me that we will return to our old ways of talking to God while encouraging me to keep the faith in the meantime.

The past continued to pop in for days after that. Friends I had not heard from in ages reached out. I also discovered the rough draft of an essay I started a long time ago, about the way the ancient stones of the Kotel transport me thousands of years back in time.   

What surprised me most, though, was the vivid dream I had of an old Romanian synagogue I once visited while traveling for work, which often took me to Jewish communities throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The pews were dusty from disuse in a town with only a few remaining Jews. But in my dream, they were filled with men in talleisim swaying to familiar tunes and kerchiefed women leaning over the balcony to catch the words of the Torah portion.

I received an unexpected souvenir as a parting gift on the day of the actual visit: a vintage iron, the kind heated by hot coals, that was in a box headed for the garbage. The caretaker was pleased to part with it, though she insisted I’d be better off buying a new one. I confessed either would be mostly decorative. She also offered me the sign from the shuttered mikvah that would never have fit into the tiny car we were traveling in.

After I wrote to a colleague about the dream, he sent photos of me with the caretaker and confirmed my other memories of our visit. I reminded him about the iron, which keeps company with my books in the den, and I shared my lingering regret that I did not find a way to shlep the mikvah sign home.

With the distance of time, my travel experiences have assumed the magical proportions of a shtetl fairy tale, my sundry souvenirs symbolic meaning. I recall the way I would have to catch my breath, an emotional reflex, each time I entered an old synagogue — whether it was restored to its original splendor and remained in use, or if it echoed with the hush of ghosts in its emptiness and disrepair.

Though I was eager to see the aron hakodesh, the holy ark, the first tug on my heart was always the women’s section, where I imagined myself praying in a former life. I would climb up the often rickety steps, pulling prayer books off the shelves in the hope of finding a copy of the “Tzena Urena,” a Yiddish rendering of Torah stories written for women. I wanted to hear its former owner call out from the worn pages of the past, whispering that the world persists and that our faith must as well.

I never found one, no matter how often I looked. Yet I fondly recall the day that a rabbi, another colleague from that era in my life, sent me a package from the Romanian countryside. I knew what history and holiness it contained even before I tore off the brown paper packaging to reveal the “Tzena Urena” I’d been seeking.

It was easy enough to miss that pile of white shirts in the laundry basket, which is tucked deep into a corner. After all, my husband has others to wear at home. But I understand why its discovery launched this flood of memories of old synagogues and long sought-after prayer books on forlorn shelves: I miss our shul.

Though I talk to God plenty from home, it is in our synagogues that we have the chance to visit Him in His own house. It is where we gather with other Jews to chatter together in our ancient tongue, to travel back in time while reciting the prayers we’ve uttered as a people for millenia around the globe.

I know our current absence from synagogue is temporary, a loss that will hopefully be too short-lived for the pews to gather dust or the prayerbooks to feel abandoned. I imagine them calling out from the dark and quiet, Have faith. We’re waiting for you. We hope to see you again soon.

Merri Ukraincik, who lives in Edison, N.J., is a regular contributor to the New Jersey Jewish News. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.