Among the Sufferers and Survivors

Excerpt: 'Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of A Girl Who Couldn't Stop Praying'

By Abby Sher

Published December 22, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

I’d come to realize that making lists and repeating things were a large part of being Jewish, too. There were lists of things we could and couldn’t eat; lists of prayers to say over and over and commandments to follow, the ten plagues that G-d sent down on the pharaoh so the Jews could get out of Egypt, the twelve tribes of Israel, and my favorite, the list of Dearly Departed. Rabbi Poller read this list out loud every week at synagogue before we said the Kaddish —the prayer for people who’d died. Each week there were new names on the DD list and new people to feel sorry for.

After Aunt Simone died, we began going to synagogue more often on Friday nights and the rabbi added her, too. I loved hearing him stammer and stumble through the long tongue-twistery names like Kabelevski and Melkowitz. The list was never perfectly alphabetical and he often became sweaty and confused while he was reading.

Since Dad got sick, Mom and I were the only members of our family who went to services regularly, and we stood up through the whole recitation of the DD list. When the rabbi said Simone Belsky I squeezed Mom’s hand and she patted me on the head and I relished the sorrowful gazes and meek smiles we received. When the list was done, everyone said the Kaddish in subdued, respectful voices and I learned the Hebrew words by heart from having it wash all over me.

I challenged myself to memorize more and more of the passages in my prayer book, and each week I tried out new harmonies on the songs. We had an organist at my synagogue who played behind a copper-colored screen, and when he hit the full minor chords, the whole room quivered. Some Fridays I was convinced that everyone on the planet was praying at the same time, and I trembled as Rabbi Poller intoned Here and wheresoever they may be, and let us say: Amen. I’d also discovered that Judaism was a lot about suffering. Jews respected suffering, and the more you’d endured the more they paid attention to you at synagogue, carrying you on their Kaddish shoulders and coming up to Mom and me after services to say how sorry they were to learn of our loss. Whenever someone approached us, Mom thumped my back, which meant Stand up straight, Chicken, but also See? I’m so proud of you. I loved going to temple, particularly for these moments. I got to wear Mom’s blush and a little bit of lipstick and have as much Manischewitz and as many butter cookies as I wanted. But more important, I was part of a uniquely fragile circle of sufferers and survivors. I scooped punch next to old men with concentration camp numbers etched into their arms. I nodded knowingly to Inma, whose skin was so thin you could see all of her veins crisscrossing under her eyes, and Beverly, who smiled in slow motion even when no one was talking to her.

The whole point of synagogue, as far as I could tell, was that it was a place where anybody could come to sing or listen or cry. It didn’t matter whether you were popular or stuck in slow motion or irrevocably scarred. Once you walked through the big oak doors you belonged.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.