Going to Church With My Jewish Father

By Charlotte Gordon


My father was the first person to church on Sunday mornings. When I was little, I would beg to go with him and he would let me push open the leather bound double doors to the sanctuary and carry the folder that held his music. Inside, the air was heavy with the smell of old incense and the light was dim and holy. I settled myself in a folding chair next to the organ while my father opened his violin case and started to warm up. First, a G major scale, then the leather doors would swoosh open and the organist, who was always late, would bustle in carrying a shopping bag stuffed with music. It was time to start the rehearsal.

I liked watching my father play. He was a big man with dark eyes and black curly hair. He used his father’s old bow and his violin was a copy of a famous Stradivarius. It was a golden syrupy color with black curlicues around the rim. Sometimes I got to hold it, and, better yet, even though it was too big for me, sometimes I got to play it, too.

Mozart by Joseph Lange
A portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by Joseph Lange, 1782.

The organist, Helen Hendry, was small and had a sharp tongue. My father felt her sense of humor was a little weak and that it was his job to help her laugh. He would speed up and ask her why she was slowing down. He also felt free to “improve” pieces by changing the composer’ s dynamics, and so by the second piece, arguments would break out.

“Dick,” Helen would say, “I can’t follow you if you are going to change the rhythm like that.”

“Ah,” my father would say, “I’m not changing the rhythm. You’re just having problems with the notes.” He would lower his violin and grin at Helen. He loved to make her angry. “Maybe you should practice more.”

Helen’ s face would darken, but she kept her voice low because by then there were people in the church, kneeling and having moments of silent prayer. “Dick,” she hissed, “you need to play what’s written on the page.”

“But that’s so dull,” my father would twinkle, “You’d get bored if you knew what to expect.”

Finally, Helen would relent, although I don’ t think she ever actually laughed. “OK,” she’d say, “Let’ s start over.”

When my mother arrived for the service, I would refuse to sit with her in a pew. I stayed in back with the musicians where I felt I belonged. On special Sundays my father would bring my violin along so that he and I could play a duet, although this enterprise had its own challenges, as my father was a relentless taskmaster. He would needle me about my intonation and shout at me to stand up straight and hold my violin up. “I am holding my violin up,” I would wail. “I am standing up straight.” But he also taught me that Mozart should be played elegantly, that Brahms should be played with long bows and lots of vibrato and that Bach, his favorite, had to be played with precision and love. It was best when we played together as this limited his ability to shout at me. Although he still managed. “You’re late,” he’d yell, or “fix that E flat!”

We practiced under a huge portrait of my grandfather who had died before I was born. He looked exactly like my father. Dark eyes, black hair, and he held a violin. Music had been his ticket out of the ghetto. He debuted at Carnegie when he was still a teenager, having fled Russia right before the revolution. When my father was especially exasperated, he would exclaim, “My father played for the czar when he was your age.”

My father never took a Sunday off and so he never sat in a pew like everyone else. He was always last in line for communion because he stood in the back of the church next to the organ. I never thought much about this: that my father was a musician, that he never sat in the pews, until one day when I was 12 my older sister told me that our father was Jewish. I knew Jewish children at school. Margie Hellman was not allowed to sing all of the songs during our Christmas concert. But I was. Besides, my family went to church. Still, my sister insisted. “Ask him yourself,” she said. But when I asked, he snorted and said, of course, he was not Jewish.

Finally, when I was older and started to explore our heritage I found that my sister was right. My father’s family was Jewish. But in a way my father was also right. His family was not Jewish in any religious sense. They had never set foot in a temple and they hated their Jewish blood so much that they did their best to camouflage it. My grandparents changed their names to sound less Jewish and my father did them one better. He converted to Christianity when he was 15 years old. However, they did cling to the violin, the one family tradition that they passed on to me.

And so I suppose I should not have been surprised when my 4 year old son begged to play after watching his grandfather practice. At first I would not let him. I could not imagine having the battles with him that my father had had with me. But finally I relented, and now that he is ten, he plays Mozart with elegance and practices under the portrait of his great grandfather.


About Charlotte Gordon

Charlotte Gordon is a writer who lives on Cape Ann, Mass. Her book, Mistress Bradstreet, won the Massachusetts Book Award for non-fiction. Her latest book, The Woman Who Named God (Little, Brown) retells the famous Biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. She is currently an assistant professor at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. She can be reached at charlottegordonbooks.com.