A man of my age – I am just a few months short of 88 – does not like changes.
We like to be in familiar places, doing familiar things with familiar people. This tendency also applies to the marking of Jewish holidays. I like to be in a familiar synagogue, hearing the voices of familiar clergy, singing familiar melodies and hearing the sound of a familiar shofar.
Back in the 1930’s, when Yom Kippur rolled around, my father would take me to the New Temple of Brno in Czechoslovakia, where we sat in a pew that was completely occupied by family members – male family members, of course. Mother, aunts and sundry female cousins all were relegated to the balcony. My father was one of 13 siblings, so there was no shortage of uncles, aunts, cousins and in-laws to occupy a considerable portion of the temple.
For a small child the services were pure agony. I was handed a heavy prayer book and was invited to follow along. Because I was going to the school run by the Jewish community in Brno, I started learning Hebrew in kindergarten. But even when I was 8 years old, and in third grade, I could not read fast enough to keep up. Also, the prayer book was designed to be used for all occasions and holidays, so there were constant instructions to “add this for Succoth” or “delete this on Shabbat.” And to make these instructions more challenging, they were not in German or Czech, languages I knew. Instead, they were printed using Hebrew letters but actually were in Yiddish. Each member of the congregation was obliged to bring his own siddur. So, once I was lost in the Hebrew text, I had to confess that fact to my father, who would guide me to the right place in the book. I always felt terribly guilty when I had to do this, as if I had offended God by not paying attention.
By the time I was 10 years old, perhaps to make my visits to the synagogue pleasanter, I volunteered to sing in the choir and was happily accepted. Now I only had to read the music pages, and I always knew where we were during the service. Alas, that lasted only two years, until right after the High Holiday in 1940. That was when the Nazis permanently closed our beautiful and familiar shul.
Some 15 years of chaos, turmoil, and instability followed, as our family engineered its escape from Europe, arrived in the United States, and moved several times while trying to establish a foothold. Also, during these years, I served in the United States navy, went to college, and started a career. Not surprisingly, I found myself in a different synagogue each year, marking the High Holidays in new surroundings, led by a great variety of rabbis and cantors. It wasn’t until I was married and settled in New Jersey that once again I began to enjoy the warm familiar environment of the same congregation year after year.
Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake was incorporated in 1929 and grew to become one of the largest congregations in the state. By 1966, when we joined, it already was under the leadership of the rabbi, cantor, and school principal who guided it for nearly half a century. Now, once again, each Yom Kippur, I was surrounded by familiar things. When you arrived, a supply of kippot, tallitot, and prayer books awaited you. The whole congregation used the same prayer book; should you lose your place or allow your mind to wonder, the rabbi would guide you gently back to the right page. The book had English text alongside the Hebrew one, so you knew not just that you were praying but what you were praying. For the next 57 years, Temple Emanuel was my home on Yom Kippur.
Until this year.
This year, my sabra wife convinced me that we should travel to Israel a few days after Rosh Hashanah and spend the Day of Atonement in Israel. I asked Israeli friends and relatives: “What does a practicing but non-Orthodox Jew do on Yom Kippur in Israel?” The first thing they asked: “Will you fast?” “Of course, I will fast! I have done so since I was 12 years old – even in the navy.” “Well, there must be a temple near you in Rishon – although it is most likely Orthodox.”
Suddenly I had this sinking feeling that I will, once again, have to revert to the conditions of the Brno synagogue, with my wife hidden away somewhere, everyone reading from a different book, and a cantor storming through the service under the assumption that every one can follow the text. “No, I don’t think we want to do that,” I responded. “Well, than all you can do is stay at home, read, study, rest, go for a walk or visit neighbors” I was told. I was deeply disappointed by this choice. What kind of a way was this to spend Yom Kippur?
But I shouldn’t have worried. The day turned out to be unique and quite appropriate for the occasion. First, there was the absolute quiet that descended on the city – the streets and highways were virtually empty of all traffic, the television and radio stations were mute, the phones stopped ringing, and I faced the prospect of spending the day without touching food, drink, and the computer. With this uncommon silence came a chance to meditate, to reflect, and to exercise some much- needed self-examination. In many ways, the day became an unexpected pseudo-religious experience. This had, in fact to my surprise, become a quite meaningful Day of Atonement.
When the day of fasting ended and things returned to their normal state, I realized that I had not pined for the usual synagogue service, missed the camaraderie of a congregation, or searched for the voices of a cantor or a rabbi. The only thing I truly missed was the sound of the shofar.