By Maxine Dovere
There was a time, still remembered by many, when the gentlemen ushers in their High Holiday bowler hats most decorously guided congregants to designated seats. For almost half a New York block, row upon row faced the temporary bimah (stage) from where the congregation’s clergy led the services. As is true of every anniversary, it was a time of transition—of beginnings known and endings yet unwritten.
There was a Rosh Hashanah that I recall as though it were yesterday, though in fact it was a yesterday more than 30 years past. Near the middle of the congregation, in a “seat by the eastern wall,” a man and his soul engaged in prayer that went far, far beyond words. His youngest, an unexpected joy, was a babe in arms, 6 months old, dressed in his first “pinstripes” and bowtie. The brown curls of his oh-so-serious 6-year-old brother, who sat wrapped under his father’s tallit (prayer shawl), peeked out from the silver-collared garment. The first-born, his princess, hovered like a guardian angel.
The image, a last memory of a holiday with family complete—of odds seemingly beaten and future assured—remains forever vibrant in my mind’s eye. A dream unfulfilled.
“Who shall live and who shall die?” asks “Unetaneh Tokef”—the piyut (prayer poem) thought to have originated in the sixth or seventh century—which is a central part of the High Holiday liturgy. “We shall ascribe holiness to this day,” it begins. “…On Rosh Hashanah it is written; on Yom Kippur it is sealed,” the prayer continues, going on to list many possible fates that may befall the congregants. Make no assumptions, it teaches. Destiny is not in one’s own hands; even if the offered path of teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah (penitence, prayer and righteousness) is followed, it may not avert the divine decree. “Who in their time, and who not their time?”
A year passed; the baby became a toddler and the then 7-year-old sat in his father’s seat, wearing his daddy’s tie. The tallit was folded away and carefully placed in a bureau drawer. Being the “other adult” should not have been a 16-year-old daughter’s responsibility.
“May his memory be for a blessing,” the traditional greeting to an individual in mourning, becomes congregational during Yizkor (the memorial service). After so many years, its words still evoke a quiet smile or perhaps a tear. The pain of loss loses its hard edges, but never goes away.
Our family tradition was to break the fast with a shared extra-large “black and white” cookie that magically appeared as the recitation of “Neilah,” the closing prayer of Yom Kippur, concluded. Its sweetness, we hoped, would be symbolic of the character of the year ahead.
Present becomes past; the moment becomes memory. Though the sweetness remains on the tongue, children grow, becoming accomplished adults with children of their own. Their father, my husband, who survived a wartime childhood in Siberia, would have kvelled.
The shofar sounds, heralding the New Year. May we, all of us, be written for a year of peace, of heath and of joy. Shanah Tovah!