I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home in the lower east side of Manhattan. When I was very young my father would take me to Shule every morning and evening. At Shule all the men only spoke in Yiddish and I understood them as that is the only language I spoke until I was past 3-years old. I thought that he took me to Shule so that I would be exposed to the etiquette and discussions but found out later in life it was to keep me from fighting with my 4-sisters. In fact, after ¾ of a century they still remind me of my childhood terrorism.
I was an inquisitive boy who loved to watch what others were doing and enjoyed figuring things out by observing what people were doing. What is it that they are doing and are they doing it correctly? While in Shule I was always amazed at the power of the black cloth belt that was placed around the waist of one man who went to the front podium of the Shule and all the men that had been arguing with each other over Torah suddenly fell very quiet and said amen at what the man in the black belt said. Since my father put the black belt on often I was very proud of him and his power.
While at Shule I looked up at the faces of the men praying and Shuckling from front to back, some from side to side, some doing this gently and some rapidly, and I could not understand how they could read the book they were holding while doing this. At 4-years old I spoke English (or Yinglish) having carefully listened to my 3-older sisters playing school, and I could read all their books. But I could only read them at the table or lying on the floor because when I Shuckled all the words got jumbled up. The movement of the eyes of the men who Shuckled also caught my attention. The eyes of those who Shuckled gently were steady as their heads and books moved together.
These men wore glasses, most had white beards and some had brown hair around their mouths and white hair elsewhere. The eyes of the men who Shuckled rapidly moved up and down or side to side rapidly and they did not move their book in unison with their Shuckling. These men had black beards or no beard at all and they did not wear glasses. I figured that the rapid movement of the eyes of the rapid Shucklers strengthened their eyes which is why they did not wear glasses. So whenever possible I would move my eyes up and down and side to side so that I would not have to wear glasses. It didn’t help as they made me wear glasses at the age of about 7 to correct my astigmatism. Maybe I didn’t Shuckle enough to strengthen my eyes.
I also observed that the men Shuckled more violently in the winter months and strangely they all Shuckled in unison in the summer months. They also barely Shuckled during the week and the strong Shuckling was reserved for Saturdays when the family was at Shule. I could not made sense of this until I became an Engineer having studied Physics and other sciences and realized how wonderful we Jews solved problems in simple environmentally safe and inexpensive ways. The construction of the Shule and the Shuckling of the men served a very important purpose.
The construction of the Shule with its high ceiling provided for a balcony for all the women and children with the men on the main floor below them. There was no heat in these Shules during the winter and the Shule was very cold. So on Saturdays all the Shuckling of the men generated a lot of heat, and the heat rose to keep the women and children in the balcony warm. In the summer months the Shuckling in unison created a draft circulation of the air which kept the women and children in the balcony cooler. In fact on occasion some of the men would stretch their arms outward holding their tallis which formed a wing which was not to cool themselves but to create an even greater draft of air. What a wonderful solution this Shuckling was.
Today very few men Shuckle as the Shules are heated in winter, air conditioned in summer and most no longer have a balcony for women and children. It’s a shame that years of communal experimentation that led to Shuckling was abandoned and forgotten. So I would like all men to Shuckle in Shule again to honor the ingenuity all those that came before us.