The Shtender and The Pair of Doors

A shtender is a prayer stand, upon which rests the siddur/prayerbook of the person leading the service or of whomever else is davenning/praying before it. The Nehar Shalom shtender comes from a small chapel that stood for many years in the Baker Street Cemetery in West Roxbury. Used for the funerals of its members, it had belonged to the long closed Beis Hamidrash Hagadol in Roxbury, known affectionately as the Crawford Street Shul.

The story:

In the summer before Nehar Shalom began, Rabbi Reinstein received a call that this little cemetery chapel was about to be torn down. We were looking for an Aron HaKodesh/Holy Ark at the time. I was told I could take whatever I wanted from the chapel, but to get there quickly. I went early in the morning and entered the unlocked doors to a sickening sight. It was filthy, with seats turned over, grease and oil on the floor from machinery that had been stored there, light fixtures hung by their cords from the ceiling, birds were flying inside the building. There didn’t appear to be anything of value.

There was an ark, but it was massive and built into the wall without a back of its own. Unable to take the ark itself, I removed the large beautiful doors that upon opening had once revealed the Torah scrolls within. These are the doors that rest against the side rear wall of our shtibl.

Looking around, I noticed a shtender to the side of the bimah, the raised area before the ark. It was covered with bird droppings, so dirty that at first I had no interest in it. Something called me to it, so I went over to look.

In its bottom right corner there was a bird’s nest woven of twigs and bits of paper that I realized were the pages of a siddur. Fragments of these holy pages were strewn on the floor around the shtender. I gathered up the bird’s nest and the fragments to bring to the geniza, a storage room in the cemetery for the safekeeping of worn out holy books and religious items until they can be buried. On top of the shtender rested the crumbling remains of the siddur itself. I was stunned as I looked at the page to which this tattered prayer book had probably been left open for decades. There in the cemetery it was open to a prayer from the earliest part of the morning prayers that plaintively asks,

“What are we? What is our life? What is our goodness?

What is our righteousness? What is our help? What is our strength? What is our might?

What can we say before You, God our God, and God of our ancestors….?”

There amidst the congregation of the dead, a minyan of souls, these are questions for the living, the questions by which to order the priorities of life. I carefully lifted up this page and placed it in a folder. Along with its own fragments and the bird’s nest to which it had given of itself, I took the remains of the siddur to the genizah. Knowing now the holiness of this shtender, I took it with me. My wife and I carefully cleaned it, scrubbed and oiled it. The yellowed page from the old siddur, protected by glass now, continues to ask its questions from a continuing place upon the shtender.

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