This evening marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur is not very far away. These are the Jewish High Holy Days, the Days of Awe, a time for reflection and repentance.
They were also the catalyst for an essay I wrote 20 years ago, when I was a college junior. That fall semester, I was lucky enough to be admitted into a creative nonfiction workshop taught by Verlyn Klinkenborg. It’s safe to say that Verlyn and I agreed that “Reflections During the Days of Awe, 1989-5750” was the best piece I wrote that term.
The essay is written in segments divided by portions of the Unetenah Tokef liturgy, which is an essential aspect of Holy Day worship (and I’m far from the only one to have found creative inspiration in it: Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire” provides an extraordinary musical perspective). In honor of the Holy Days, and with the benefit of a creation that was inconceivable when I first wrote the piece – namely, hyperlinks – I would like to share it here.
Thank you for indulging my return to what remains for me a deeply meaningful piece of writing. And for all of my fellow practicing writers who are also celebrating the new year 5770, shanah tovah!
REFLECTIONS DURING THE DAYS OF AWE, 1989-5750
by Erika Dreifus
ON ROSH HASHANAH IT IS WRITTEN,
ON YOM KIPPUR IT IS SEALED:
HOW MANY SHALL PASS ON, HOW MANY SHALL COME TO BE:
WHO SHALL LIVE AND WHO SHALL DIE;
I don’t remember feeling any special ties to my religion as a young child. “Chanukah” was simply a time to receive a new Barbie doll or board game or book. “Passover” meant that one April night each year we’d have a big meal at Aunt Mimi’s Westchester house with all of Mommy’s family, and the next night we’d eat with Daddy’s parents, and then for a few days there would be cracker-like food called “matzah” in our apartment. Nearly everyone in our Brooklyn neighborhood was Jewish. All my friends and I looked forward to those days we could claim as school “holidays,” spending the insignificant Sukkots and Shavuots playing in the autumn and spring sunshine. I cannot remember even being inside a synagogue before my eighth birthday. I did know that my grandparents went to “shul” on days that were called “Rosh Hashanah” and “Yom Kippur.” Those were days when people tried to dress especially nicely; everyone greeted each other with the words “Happy New Year” in the middle of September; and for one day, my grandfather refused to eat.
When I was eight, my mother decided that it was important for me to have some sort of Jewish education – she and my father had both been raised in fairly Conservative Jewish households – so she enrolled me in a Conservative Hebrew school that expected attendance four afternoons each week from 3:30 to 5:30 and Saturday morning “Junior Congregation” worship as well. For the first time, I was called not “Erika,” but rather the Hebrew name, “Yocheved,” that I shared with my mother’s grandmother. At that congregation’s school, I first became acquainted with the Hebrew language and prayers and Bible stories, and when our family moved to a New Jersey suburb at the end of that school year, I had become more conscious of a Jewish identity.
WHO SHALL SEE RIPE AGE AND WHO SHALL NOT:
WHO SHALL PERISH BY FIRE AND WHO BY WATER;
WHO BY SWORD AND WHO BY BEAST;
WHO BY HUNGER AND WHO BY THIRST;
Our new home was the only Jewish one on the block, and perhaps that is why my parents began to search for a congregation affiliation almost as soon as the cartons were unpacked (and they were unpacked fast) that summer of 1978. I remember the Saturday morning the four of us visited the township’s Conservative synagogue. The Sanctuary was small and dark, and all I could see was a cluster of old men chanting Hebrew. “Let’s leave,” my father said. We drove ten minutes to another temple, a more modern construction crowning acres of beautifully landscaped property. The parking lot seemed a maze to my sister and me, winding around to assure enough spaces for the cars of the thousand member families. The short summer service, held in an airy chapel, was conducted mostly in English. The Rabbi offered my sister and me flowers from the large arrangement at the front of the room after the Benediction. We became members of the Reform “TBJ” the following week.
WHO BY EARTHQUAKE AND WHO BY PLAGUE;
WHO BY STRANGLING AND WHO BY STONING;
WHO SHALL BE SECURE AND WHO SHALL BE DRIVEN;
TBJ required only one afternoon and one weekend morning of religious instruction each week. My Hebrew did not improve much over the years I studied there, but as a TBJ member I have learned to consider myself a Jew in a way I never did before.
Last weekend, I flew home to New Jersey and celebrated the new year 5750 with my family. Again I listened to Cantor Summers chant the Avinu Malkeinu, his voice and those of the choir mingling in the vast Sanctuary, pleading in ancient Hebrew, “Our Father, our King, hear our voice. Our Father, our King, we have sinned against You. Our Father, our King, have compassion on us and on our children.” Again I watched Rabbi Greene, robed in Holy Day white, look out into the faces of the congregants. Again I basked in the love and friendship shown to my family, warmth that has increased every year as we have become “regulars” at Friday night Sabbath worship, as my mother involves herself caring for so many Temple members, as my father has assumed the congregation’s Presidency, as my sister and I have become B’not Mitzvah, “Daughters of the Commandment,” on our thirteenth birthdays, and Confirmands at the end of tenth grade, and Temple Youth Group leaders during our high school years.
WHO SHALL BE TRANQUIL AND WHO SHALL BE TROUBLED;
WHO SHALL BE POOR AND WHO SHALL BE RICH;
WHO SHALL BE HUMBLED AND WHO EXALTED.
My Grandma Rose died five years ago, during the ten “Days of Awe” between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Her favorite worship service took place the night before Yom Kippur, when the Kol Nidre prayer is chanted openly in synagogues throughout the world, chanted as it has been for so many generations, chanted now as it was even behind closed doors in Inquisition Spain when those Jews who pretended to convert to Catholicism – the Marranos – gathered in secret to make sacred Kol Nidre, “All Vows,” to God.
Grandma’s younger sister Esther stayed at our house last weekend. She came to services with us and blinked back tears as Grandma’s name was read aloud from the Yarzheit list, the roll call of people who died, as Rabbi Greene always intones, “at this season in years past.”
Esther’s twin, Syl, lives in a nearby nursing home, and Saturday morning, before going to Temple, I drove my sister and some of her Youth Groupers over to the Theresa Grotta Center to lead the Jewish residents in prayer. Syl did not recognize me at first, and since she is almost completely deaf I had to repeat loudly, “I’m Erika, I’m MADELINE’s daughter,” for her to place me as her favorite niece’s child – but I sat with her throughout the brief service and turned her prayerbook’s pages. At the end of the service, Syl, who has been the despair of many a mental health professional, reached for my arm and said, “I wanted my sister Rose here with me – I wanted her picture with me and I forgot – but she was here, all the same.”
This year, I won’t be with my family for Kol Nidre. I will go to dinner with friends, and then walk to Memorial Church, where Harvard Hillel runs its Reform services (“Yom Kippur in a church?” my grandfather asked increduously during my freshman year). The next morning I will stand at the pulpit and lead part of the day’s worship. I will break the day-long fast later that evening at my roommate’s home in Lexington, with a family as loving and as imbued with tradition as my own.
BUT REPENTANCE, PRAYER, AND CHARITY
TEMPER JUDGMENT’S SEVERE DECREE
According to the Holy Day prayerbook, according to the pages that I will read with the Harvard community on the Day of Atonement, the decision whether I shall live or die this year has been made and will be sealed as the sun sets Monday night and I resume eating. That is a profound thought. I don’t know how strongly I believe it. Often, I think that I don’t know what or who God is. I do know that my Judaism means more to me than words. It is a mosaic. Judaism signifies family. It means thinking about others and giving special consideration to the weak and the old. It means celebrating in times of joy and consoling in times of sadness or trouble. It signifies holiday traditions and food and melodies and culture. It means that there are some things about me that some of my non-Jewish friends have never understood and may never understand, and that there exists a special bond between me and many of my Jewish friends. Judaism commands responsibility and bequeaths a heritage. And Judaism means that Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the Days of Awe will always be my time for contemplation. Life and death take on richer meanings in the days of enhanced “repentance, prayer, and charity.”
(Way back when, I dedicated this essay to my mother, and to all of her mother’s family. I still do.)