No matter how much time passes, it seems once you are a rabbi’s daughter, you’re always a rabbi’s daughter at heart.
When I was growing up as a daughter of a pulpit rabbi, going to shul and everything shul-related was a part of the very fabric of our lives. My father, Rabbi Max Posnansky, didn’t exactly leave the job at shul — instead he brought it home each Shabbat for all of us to discuss and digest. Lunchtime on Shabbat was filled with talk about his d’var Torah and a smattering of shul politics. My uncle, a Holocaust survivor, would start by critiquing my father’s weekly speech. If my uncle approved, in his thick European accent he’d say, “It vas good. You made me cry.” Since he was also my dad’s best friend and critic, however, he’d voice his honest evaluation as well. “Tank you for giving me a good shluf. You need to talk more about Israel.”
The appetizer at our meal was chopped liver served with a heaping of shul politics, a main dish of chicken and kugels, and a dessert of compote and national politics. Sometimes they’d complain about a disgruntled congregant or the gabbai or the president of the shul for not having enough schnapps at the kiddush. Both my father and my uncle were immigrants, well read in both the Yiddish and English papers, and they watched Walter Cronkite every night. Their teasing and banter sometimes was serious and yet also comical, as their authoritative shul demeanor melted away.
In those days, going to my father’s shul — Beth Sholom — was my duty as the rabbi’s daughter. I’d enter as if it were stage left and walk to the front of the women’s section where I sat with my family. On the way toward the front, I’d pass Bessie and Ida and Mildred, who often were deep in conversation but would give me a quick-once over as I passed their row. They’d smile at me and then get back to their personal conversation.
While my father loved being a rabbi, it not easy being the rabbi’s kid. In my small town — Scranton, Pennsylvania —I couldn’t escape the confines of that identity. I’d often be introduced as “The Rabbi’s Daughter” as if that were my first, middle, and last name. Living in a fishbowl can be a very tricky prospect for a child growing up and trying to establish an identity. The times I dared to attend the other shul in the neighborhood, where several of my good friends went, made me feel uncomfortable. No one ever made me feel overtly unwelcome, but I felt like a puzzle piece that just didn’t belong. Casual glances were interpreted as stares that said, “You belong in that other shul up the hill.”
I’d also react to my father’s critics and detractors. Every rabbi has them. It comes with the territory. One Shabbat morning, I was in a stall in the lady’s room, doing and minding my own business, when I heard a cross conversation from women on either side. “Don’t you think the rabbi should stop raising his voice so much in his speeches, he’ll get high blood pressure!” the first one said. The woman on the other side replied, “Yes, he really should watch that.” I wanted to yell at these biddies and give them a piece of this rabbi’s daughter’s mind, but I let it go. Waiting until they left, I quickly scooted back to my seat. If anything, my dad taught me how to be diplomatic; he dealt with so many issues and different kinds of personalities.
There’s also the visceral temptation to escape and rebel against it all. For me, rebellion took shape in the way I dressed. It was the day of the mini skirts and my skirts got rolled, tucked, and hemmed way up. One of my teachers took me aside and whipped out a ruler to measure how far up my skirt was from my knees. My dad, who also was a clotheshorse, seemed to be more concerned that I was ruining my clothes. I suppose he considered this rather tame behavior when he was dealing with more serious religious issues with other people.
And there were occasions when the perks were a definite plus. Receiving family-of-clergy discounts at my favorite boutiques made shopping very pleasant. Salespeople seemed to know who I was, even if I didn’t have a clue about who they were, and community people regaled me with stories of how dad helped them. It made me proud.
Although my father no longer is in this world, this still is a part of my identity. Years ago, I moved from my small town in Pennsylvania to New York and then to Teaneck. In every community in which I have lived, I’ve sought out shuls that suited me best. This area has a variety to offer in terms of congregations. To me, it’s like walking into Dunkin Donuts and being surrounded by delicious pastries and finding the flavor for my personal palette.
My shul experience now is of my own choosing, and there is always something that speaks to me, whether it’s a poignant speech, beautiful davening from a chazan, or even a great kiddush.
“Shul centers me,” I said to a friend recently, and I caught myself off guard after uttering these words. We had been discussing how difficult it is to get shul-ready on Shabbat after an exhausting work week. It came as an epiphany, and as the words tumbled out, I realized how true it is. After a hectic, difficult, and challenging week, I can return to the beautiful songs in the Shabbat davening. I walk towards my “makom kavua,” my regular seat, and I’m truly home.
Esther Kook is a reading specialist and language arts teacher. She lives in Teaneck.