The chassidic masters tell us that the name “Elul” (the month before the High Holidays) is an acronym for ani l’dodi v’dodi li—“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” When the month of Elul approaches, its beautiful name always reminds me of how I would hear that verse from Song of Songs sung on Friday evenings at the Kol Shadai synagogue on Shimshon Street in Jerusalem. For many years before I married, I would go to this little Moroccan shul to welcome the Shabbat.
Feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland, with legs too long and hair too blond, I would come in time for the afternoon prayer, so that I could hear all of the Song of Songs sung during the pause before ushering in the Shabbat with the evening prayer. Although all Sephardi congregations chant Song of Songs on Friday evenings, this particular shul was blessed with wonderful voices. The little boys belted out, but didn’t yell. Their fathers had young deep bass resonating voices, and their grandfathers, mature sweet lilting voices. Usually Moroccans sing out their prayers in unison, but here, Song of Songs and Lechah Dodi on Friday evening were multiple solo performances. Whoever jumped in first sang a few lines, until someone else glided in.
For me, coming from Washington, D.C., where the synagogue members paid their cantor to allow their prayer to be as passive as possible, the spontaneity was wonderful. I felt I was wandering in the Sinai, with the voices of Kol Shadai blending with the minor keys of the wind and the desert.
The women’s gallery was an impromptu arrangement of simple old wooden benches lining the walls of a narrow room adjacent to the men’s section. We entered through a dark hallway with a few surprise stone steps. Nobody in Washington would accept such conditions, but here, old women who could hardly walk breezed their way in and out. The short older women who sat on long wooden benches with their hands cupped up to Heaven did not know how to read, but they knew the liturgy by heart. They were empowered to direct the music. When one of the men got carried away with his solo, trilling or holding a note too long, the women would laugh, Opera singer! pushing him off the stage.
I never learned the women’s names, but there were two whom I especially liked. One was salty, with diamond-cut eyes and gaunt cheeks. The other had high cheeks, like apples, gracing soft sweet eyes. When we rose to greet and bow to the Sabbath Queen at the end of Lechah Dodi, she would walk to the open doorway, bow with outstretched arms, and kiss the mezuzah. As the Divine Presence lingered, all worry and weekday strife would vanish.
Now that I am married, I bring in Shabbat at home. When I reach the last verse of Lechah Dodi, I open the door and kiss the mezuzah. It is a moment of love and peace.
G‑d is always with us, but we are not always with Him. A special day of the week, a special month of the year, enables us to come closer and to welcome in the divine. No matter the worry or strife, if we open the door, the Beloved will enter.