Here I Am

In memoriam: Hazzan Leopold Edelstein, Z”L

Before we heard tears ascend
as melody,
before he ever entered our sanctuary                      
clad in white,
            he survived
when fear crushed reason 

Malicious digits
inked on his forearm,
             severed right hand
replaced by lifeless grip

            He stood silent
bowed at the back wall
head covered    shoulders
draped in humility    
It was the Head of the Year
our sanctuary full, walls   unfolded
like arms open    a congregation
faced forward or heads buzzed to neighbors,  

He inhaled, then in motion
began slowly, chanting: Hineni
                    Here I Am

ready as Abraham to sacrifice
as Moses to serve

Toward the holy ark
he ascended East,
            one voice

for prayers to be pleasing     

sincere hearts cleansed
as though sin had never been

* Leopold Edelstein (1909–1985) was our prayer leader, teacher and founding choir director at Beth Emeth Congregation in NE Philly during the 1950s. Born in Czechoslovakia, a classically trained musician and composer, I recall Hazzan Edelstein’s expressive voice and theatrical flair when I was just 10 years old, the first person I met whose life had been brutally marked by the Holocaust. His prosthetic hand told of horror, yet his joy awoke in me a love for Jewish music that continues to nourish my life. 

“Hineni” (“Here I am”), known as the Cantor’s prayer, is central in the High Holiday service. It is a practical plea to release congregants from any responsibility for their leader’s errors. The Hebrew word expresses both a physical and spiritual presence, a readiness to change. It was the word spoken by Moses upon seeing a bush burning, though not consumed by fire.

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