At the edge of the Laurentian Village of Val Morin and across the bridge over the Rivière-Du-Nord, lived a simple and small one-room synagogue with a steep roof, white clapboard walls, and a modest stone entrance. My zaide was the chazan there.
There were tall windows on either side of the sanctuary with an additional two on each side of the Oren Kodesh with a large Star of David shaped window above.
Up in the mezzanine, my grandmother would lean over the rail, her white-gloved hand ready to wave at us. That is, when she wasn’t watching my zaide standing on the bimah in the middle of the room, grasping the table’s blue velvet cloth. On many long August mornings, we sat on dull-white wooden benches listening to him chant Shabbat services. He sang to us and our chazan, facing the Orin Kodesh—the ark with the two Torahs. Between verses he would glance back to smile at his wife, or us, as a signal to join in with a rousing chorus.
I hate to admit it, but I didn’t like going to synagogue. I loved coming back from it.
I’d walk ten minutes up a dirt road to return to our summer country house after services for lunch. Where, just a few hours ago, my grandmother had been coercing me from my bed with a gentleness only a bubbie can deliver, “Jeffrelleh, you should wake up now. Your zaide is davening Torah soon.”
During our summers in Val Morin, my family and I would carve our initials into the white-washed wood benches with the ends of our fathers’ keys or pen-knives, if we had them, or played in the birch trees along the road, or skipped stones in the river under the bridge because we liked the echoes it made.
That was almost sixty years ago. Yet it feels just like yesterday we were together at our country house in the village.
As soon as we walked through the house’s screened porch, shouts of “Gooteh shabbos, gooteh shabbos” filled the air. My zaide would take his place at the table, which was in the centre of the kitchen, in front of half a dozen empty Sheriff-mustard-jar shot glasses. He’d either pour Canadian Club, or if it was August, bubbie’s special vishnik. Only until the liquid arched slightly over the rim and spilled into his hand did he stop. A tradition continuing down from his zaide’s zaide, he’d say with a grin, flashing the best false teeth his money could buy. Zaide set his glass carefully down in front of him on the decorated Shabbat vinyl tablecloth, but not before sucking down the excess liquor from his hand. And then we’d have to wait for him to have at least another shot before he’d begin the blessing. We froze in anticipation. The women would stop clattering the dishes and pots. We were all waiting to hear that voice.
“You know, your zaide was on the stage” my dad would whisper to us. Even though I heard his voice every Shabbat, I was impressed. Because my zaide was the big star of Vaudeville on Park Avenue in Montreal. But instead of singing to a packed theatre, in the summers he would sing in the little shul and around the kitchen table. He sung to the challah. He sung to the chicken soup. He sung to the little meat kreplach floating in the broth. He sung to the kugel and rossel. He sung to each one of us. But mostly, my zaide sung to his wife standing with her kochleffel, her large spoon, ready to add food to an already full plate.
Zaide would finish his tea and lean back in his chair, chewing the remains of a sugar cube in his mouth. The vinyl seat squeaked under him. He closed his eyes and then after a minute or two, he’d begin to nod his head as if he listened to a melody. We’d soon hear it too, coming from inside him and then he’d start to softly sing, his clear cello-like baritone smooth and clear.
Aunt Clara and my mom would stand at the other end of the kitchen by the white enamel sink sticking to their Shabbos truce (which would involve putting aside the accumulated tensions and battles of sister-in-laws’ trying to manage extended family under a single roof during the summer), would turn slightly. My bubbie with an armful of leftovers would pause; the song was our niggun, one of our zaide’s zaide’s zaide’s songs that was forever special, sad and wonderful like an ancestral treasure. Zaide’s voice seemed to be carried with the help of our Polish ancestors.
Two years after my zaide passed away at 86 years old, due to complications of pneumonia from prostate surgery, my grandmother said “Sie wissen, Sie wissen, es ist nicht gut, ein Ring ohne seinen Diamanten zu sein.” Which in English translates to “you know, it is no good, no good at all . . . being a ring without its diamond.”
On August 10, 2000, shortly after his passing, the municipality seized the shul for back taxes.
According to Susan Arnold, from the Canadian Jewish News, a representative for the Laurentian Village stated that “attempts to contact the parties by letters had all failed. The seizure was made despite the fact that the parties to whom the synagogue was registered are all long deceased.”
Reading this, I expected a quiet sadness to grow into fury. But instead I pictured my zaide, smiling up at his wife, singing the psalms and praises to all of us.
When I think back on my childhood—of warm cookies, summertime insects buzzing, the melancholy hint of a train’s horn winding its way somewhere through a distant valley, a clapboard synagogue, a crowded kitchen table, my zaide surrounding us with his presence—it offered all the joy and comfort for a ten-year-old boy to know that life was good.
I’ve been thinking lately, the one place I would always rather be is at a kitchen table in Val Morin, just a short walk from synagogue.
Header image courtesy of Jeffrey Melamed.
Jef Melamed is a graduate of McGill University and a retired architect and stained glass artist. He spent his first two decades of summer time in the Laurentians – surrounded by family and generations of cousins – before moving full time with his wife Beverlee to Saint Sauveur to ski and raise their two children, Sarah and David, in the mountain air. Today, they split their time between Markham, where Jef spends most days at his son’s Artglas Glass Studio—and their Allumette Island ‘country house’ on the Ottawa River. They still maintain their Laurentian connection as members of the St. Agathe House of Israel Synagogue.