Late Prayers

In the synagogue, my grandmother prayed with the women, and my grandfather with the men, as strict tradition required. But at home, every night before going to bed, they prayed together.

My grandmother stood on one side of their double bed, my grandfather on the other. They both faced east, toward Jerusalem, their backs to the door of the bedroom, where, out in the darkened hall, I would sometimes peek around the corner to watch and listen.

Under her scarf my grandmother's silver hair hung, fine and straight, halfway down the back of her gown. Her head was raised and slightly turned to the right , so that her keener ear would be closer to heaven and she wouldn't miss even a whisper if it came. Her hands rested at her sides, patient and mute. From underneath the hem of her gown, her feet peeped out, nestling like old lovebirds.

She would not begin her prayers until my grandfather had begun his. Swaying to and fro in his sky-blue pajamas, with his prayer shawl draped over his head, he would say softly in Hebrew, "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by His Commandments and has commanded us to wrap ourselves in the fringed garment." Though softly spoken, his words sounded loud and clear in the room, as though in the stillness of a synagogue where only he and my grandmother remained. Then, reading from the prayer book he held in one hand, and with his other hand on his heart, he prayed with great emotion.

My grandfather never prayed in any language except Hebrew, because to him God was unimaginably loftier than man, and only the sacred tongue was fitting. But to my grandmother God had always seemed a friend; and so she prayed to Him in Yiddish, as if He were one of us.

On the bed between them sat their pet, an old, fluffy-black poodle who always slept with them. He would look from one to the other, his eyes full of good-natured bewilderment, waiting for them to finish their nightly antics and get down to the serious business of sleep. No one could accuse him of being afraid to be alone in the universe. No one could accuse him of believing in some fatherly poodle up in heaven. My grandfather's pieties, my grandmother's entreaties, they were all the same to him as the yawns he gave. He was quite content with nothing but a ceiling, instead of another world, over his head. What did he know of the fears and hopes of two old children of God praying by their bed?

To me my grandparents seemed very brave, heroic. I imagined my grandfather's prayers as enchanted boats sailing across miles and miles of starry skies. And my grandmother's following, as sea gulls, her favorite bird. Sometimes the sea gulls landed on the masts of the sails and sang wild, sweet songs. Winds blew between the stars, heaving up storms, and sometimes the boats floundered, and the gulls were beaten back. But still they went on, trusting that if you have the courage to leave one shore, you will find another.

Beautiful the way my grandparents turned from their prayers and back to the world, with such sadness and pride and love that they might have been pilgrims turning from the Wailing Wall, or old scrubbers of stairs rising from their night of hard work to go home. Beautiful the way they and their pagan shadow drifted out over the shared safety of their bed toward the morning. Oh, that world of star-flung prayer, that poodles never rise to, and grandsons spy on tiptoe; oh, my heart's world!

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