It is Tuesday, December 22, 6:55 a.m.. Buffalo, NY. Light snow, temperature in the teens. I'm dressed in my BDUs and steel toes, my hardhat and safety glasses in the back seat. I'm supposed to pick up my colleague at Buffalo Airport at 8 a.m. and then head for the landfill for our audit.
The godaven printout says that Beis HaKnesses Hagodol Lubavitch, a shul that prays with the same prayerbook as mine, has morning services at 7 a.m. So that's where I am. It is reasonably close to Buffalo airport. I'll have no problem saying my prayers and my kaddishes, and meeting my colleague on time.
I pull on the main door to the building, which appears to be a school. A big one. So much the better (or so I think). The lights are out except for a long wall of frosted, translucent windows, which appears to be the side of a big single room - probably the synagogue. The outside door is unlocked - a good sign.
I go into the school and guess which door might be the shul. It is unlocked. I peek inside. It is the rear door to the bais medrash (literally, a study hall, but in most cases is seems, also a shul). The lights are on. I see nobody there. "Is anybody here?" (no answer)
I go back to my car. Maybe it's another shiva? I hesitate. Maybe I should just go in, put on my tallis and tefillin and start praying - maybe the minyan will show up soon. It's 7 a.m.
This time, I walk in. A thin, pale boy, around 13 years old, black suit, white disheveled shirt, black fedora, crooked teeth, sits hidden from view of the rear door.
Me: "Excuse me, isn't there going to be shacharit about now?
Him (shrugging, sheepish grin, high (pre-teen) voice): "Well, it never really starts at 7. More like 7:30 or so."
Me, a wry smirk on my face now: "OK, I guess I'll just start and hope for the best."
I choose a seat (there are 50 or so, all empty). I take out my tallis and prayerbook. A man walks in, about my age, short, black suit, white shirt, tzitzit, very quickly walking to the lectern. He lights the oil lamps (even though there's an electric lamp on there as well) while I'm putting on my tfillin. When I'm done he comes over to me and tells me not to worry. There will be a minyan eventually.
Me: "I have to say kaddish for my mother. It's still sheloshim" (the first thirty days after burial).
Him (shrugging, sheepish grin, high (grownup) voice): "Me, too. Don't worry."
By 7:30, there's about eight men. I'm about 80% finished with my prayers. The men can see from my positions standing, sitting, feet together, feet not together, three steps back, three steps forward, etc., that I've already said sh'ma, shmonah esrei, and tachanun. The rabbi goes out into the hallway and rounds up the stragglers.
The rabbi starts. I say my first kaddish in time for my aleinu (one of the concluding prayers). The rabbi then comes over to me and shows me a page in the siddur. He gestures and points, makes various grunts while pointing at a prayer, flipping the pages, and then pointing to a "rabbi's" kaddish (he can't talk any more - he's at a point in the prayers where he can't interrupt his prayers).
I guess the rules don't consider charades to be an interruption.
First he points to one page, running his finger down the page and says "uhhhhhh?" Then he flips to the kaddish page and points at the kaddish and says "uhhhhh." I look at him quizzically. He repeats his wordless explanation. I nod. I get it. I say the first line of the prayer out loud, then the middle silently, breaking my teeth trying to do it quickly, then the last sentence out loud, and then I say the rabbi's kaddish, to which the minyan responds appropriately.
The Rabbi then comes back with a book of psalms, and opens to psalm 20, running his finger down the page and says "uhhhhhh?" Then he flips to another kaddish page in the prayerbook and says "uhhhhh." I nod, I say the psalm, I say the mourner's my kaddish. The men reply.
I quickly take off my tfillin, wrap them up, fold up my tallis, say to the rabbi when he glances back at me, "todah" (thanks), and head for my car. Was it my imagination, or did he wink?
I pick up my colleague at 8:10. Getting there late gave him time to buy me a cup of coffee at the airport while he was waiting. I just blame it on "traffic."