Brooklyn, 1967


“Today you come with me, Aaron,” Mordecai Cohen whispered, motioning for his son to stand. He gestured at the arched opening of a corridor leading behind the altar.

The thirteen-year-old’s gangly limbs froze. Glancing back over his shoulder, Aaron saw the last of the women coming down from the balcony and funneling out the synagogue’s front door. A hand tugged at his arm.

“Come,” his father repeated. “There’s nothing to fear, I assure you.” “I’m not afraid,” Aaron lied.

Mordecai splayed his hand between his son’s shoulder blades and urged

him up the main aisle of the sanctuary. “This is a very special day for you,


“You are bringing me inside?”

“That’s right. Grandfather has asked to speak with you.” Aaron slid his trembling hands into the pockets of his black trousers. For as long as he could remember, following Saturday’s Shabbat services,

the ritual had always been the same. Father would send Aaron’s mother and four sisters home to prepare the fish and meats for the traditional Sabbath meal shalosh seudot, and then he’d disappear into a locked room situated behind the main altar. Meanwhile, Aaron would wait in the sanctuary and climb the steps to the balcony, even daringly approach the magnificent walnut cabinet, the Aron Ha-Kodesh, that housed the Torah scrolls and run his fingers along the cabinet’s intricate rosette carvings, stroke the smooth parokhet draped over its doors. An hour later, Father would emerge from the room and they’d discuss the Torah readings during their walk home.

But today, Aaron found himself being guided around the altar’s elevated pulpit, or bema, and entering a previously forbidden corridor that was long and painted with shadows. Deep in the darkness, a formidable oak door with a heavy brass dead bolt secured the synagogue’s most secret place.

Never had Father spoken of what lay beyond this door.

Never had Aaron asked why.

Mordecai placed a hand on the knob, hesitated, and turned to his son.


Aaron looked up at him. At this moment, Father appeared much younger than before, his graying beard and earlocks darkened by the shadows, the hard creases round his blue-green eyes seemingly smoothed away. And his expression was one that Aaron would never forget: pride and solidarity intermingled with trepidation. They were two men about to embark on a journey.

“Ready,” Aaron tremulously replied, the thumping in his chest so fierce it resonated in his ears.

Mordecai rapped twice with his knuckles, then turned the doorknob. He eased the door open and held out his hand. “Inside, son.”

The sweet smell of incense rushed into Aaron’s nostrils as he stepped over the threshold. The space that lay beyond the door was more mystifying than he’d ever imagined.

The room was cubical and humble in size. A sunbeam lanced the haze through a single arched window set high in the rear wall. Beneath the window, Aaron’s grandfather knelt in front of a second Aron Ha-Kodesh even more magnificent than the one in the sanctuary. Bluish smoke wisped heavenward from a golden censer set before it.

Grandfather bobbed in prayer, a white prayer shawl called a tallit katan draped over his stooped shoulders, its tzitzit tassels swaying with his incantations.

Silently, Aaron swept his curious gaze around the room and studied an impressive collection of framed oil paintings that covered the wall to his left. Each depicted a scene from the Torah—a storyboard of images, from Moses and the Israelites to the Tabernacle and the lost temple. The wall to his right was dedicated to tall bookshelves packed tight with volumes, spines embossed in Hebrew. Was this a place meant to store sacred texts and vessels—a genizah? Aaron tried to imagine what his father had been doing in here every Saturday. Praying? Studying?

The old man eased off the kneeler, then took a few moments to tenderly fold the prayer shawl and tuck it away in one of the scroll cabinet’s drawers. When he finally turned to them, Aaron straightened and directed his gaze to his grandfather’s amazing aquamarine eyes, which brought tranquility to an otherwise fearsome facade. The family resemblance was unmistakable, to the point where Aaron felt he was looking at his own future visage. Beneath his prayer cap, or kippah, Grandfather’s earlocks curled in tight twists around his ears to a flowing gray beard.

“Shabbat shalom,” Grandfather greeted them.

“Shabbat shalom,” Aaron replied.

“Hands out of your pockets, my boy,” he instructed Aaron.

Blushing, Aaron liberated his hands and let them fall to his sides.

“Better,” Grandfather said approvingly, stepping closer. “We cover the tops of our heads to show humility to God as He watches over us,” he said, placing his hand on Aaron’s kippah, “but we praise Him with our hands. So be sure He can see them.” Pointing up, Grandfather winked—a small gesture that put Aaron more at ease. “Mordecai,” he said, addressing the boy’s father without taking his eyes off Aaron, “I ask if Mr. Aaron Cohen and I might have some time alone.”

“Certainly,” Mordecai replied.

Aaron watched his father leave the room, the door closing quietly behind him. The role-switching made the boy feel special, and when he glanced back at Grandfather, he could tell the old man intended it to do so. The electric silence was pierced by a fire truck screaming down Coney Island Avenue. Aaron’s eyes darted toward the window as the siren quickly faded.

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