Enveloped in light, I sat among worshippers on the morning of Rosh Hashanah and felt as if I was veiled in splendor. Although for the first time in more than a year, people were present in the sanctuary of Congregation Beth Israel, all masked, at safe distances, God’s presence emerged in my private space. The dulcet voices of our choir and Cantor as they chanted ancient prayers, transported me back to childhood when I sat with my Zayda on a hard wooden bench in the Berriman Street Shul in Brooklyn. These were the same prayers he mumbled, perhaps the same prayers his father mumbled in their shtetl in Poland, and perhaps his father before him. In the present, connected to the past, once again I realized how important traditions are in my life.
Ten days later, on Erev Yom Kippur, wearing my kittel, a white linen garment reserved for such an occasion, it was my privilege to hold a Torah scroll adorned in white velvet. Proudly, the scroll rested on the right side of my body and I caressed it as I had my new born infants so many years ago. This honor, normally reserved for past-presidents of our large congregation, was bestowed upon me for my eightieth birthday, which was last year. However, there were three more days to go before the official date of eighty-one, so it was still the octogenarian honor. My pledge to myself is to be able to do this for the next two decade milestones.
I floated back to my seat.
For the rest of the evening, a soft resplendent light surrounded me, guiding me to hold onto my prayers and vows. Throughout the next day, a fast day, there were absolutely no pangs of hunger as I stood, bowed, beat my breast and confessed to my sins, real, unreal, and in my heart. For a mere twenty-five hours all of the mundane, daily routine of life, was replaced with inner reflection and introspection. When the shofar blast sounded at the end of the service it called to me, a new me, perhaps, and perhaps not.
A few days have passed and the calmness that came over me during the High Holy Days seems to have remained with me. Repeatedly I have pondered the transmission of values and tradition and am reminded of the words of Margaret Mead, “Children find their place in the universe not through their parents, but their grandparents.” This is certainly true for me, although it took almost eighty years to realize it.
I’ve just completed a memoir, Sitting on the Stoop: A Girl Grows in Brooklyn.* In the process of writing it, came to realize how influential my Orthodox Jewish grandparents framed childhood, a childhood I spent years rejecting. My Zayda, who at five foot six, seemed to be a giant of a man, with a loud booming voice, dominated our household with his rules and regulations. My petite grandmother, Minnie, with her false teeth placed in a glass of water every night, her big hearing aid clipped to the inside of her slip, and thick lensed wire-rimmed glasses, appeared to be in his shadow. Living in the same home with them, I knew differently. Grandma, for all her apparent frailty, all four foot ten of her, often shook a finger at Zayda, and in a high squeaky voice said in Yiddish, “Shloime, you are a fool.”
Holidays bring me back to that Brooklyn childhood. Frequently I ponder whether Zayda would understand or even tolerate my Judaism—a liberal, modern form, which integrates English and Hebrew, and musical instruments in the sanctuary. I thought about him a lot in the veil of light and felt connected. Yes, he would understand. Yes, he would be proud to know his granddaughter is saying the same prayers he said. And yes, yes he would be proud to know he has grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren who do the same.
I wish you all a Shana Tova, a year of peace in your hearts, in the world, and in your homes, a year of good health, and success. Remember to hug and kiss your children and grandchildren and all the ones you love often.