Operation: Yizkor

As I wrote last week, I was a bit disappointed by my old shul when I attended Rosh Hashanah services. This put me in a bind because my father wanted to recite the Yizkor prayer on Yom Kippur to commemorate his parents, and that meant we’d be kicking it new shul.

I’d been so busy during the week (hosting our conference and then getting our October issue rolling) that I had no time to scout out another temple. Fortunately, a friend of my father recommended one. Dad called me on Friday morning and said, “Guy really likes this temple in Chestnut Ridge. There’s a lot of Israelis there, so we won’t be out of place” — keep in mind, the last time I was in Israel was 1984 and the last time I’d attended services was 2000 — “and our only other choice is to go up to Spring Valley with the blackhats.” Done and done!

(At this point, you may wonder why I didn’t let Dad go it alone. After all, I haven’t been much of a Jew this decade, and Yizkor is only recited by those who have lost parents or a close relation. I like to think it was due to some sorta father-son loyalty, but I think it was more along the lines of how Dad and I generally relate to each other: as accomplices.)

So we rolled out on Saturday morning, the shul’s address punched into the GPS. Dad said, “When I looked up this place on Google Maps, the satellite image didn’t show any parking nearby. So we might have to walk a little.” Well, we figured, it wouldn’t be as bad as if we went to Spring Valley, where they chain off the streets during Shabbat.

Following the GPS directions, we found ourselves in a residential neighborhood, with no sign of a shul nearby. One last turn, and we saw a dozen cars parked on the street outside a standard bi-level house. “This must be the place,” I said. We got out of the car, I grabbed my yarmulke and tallis, and we walked over to the house.

(Just so you know, neither of us were fasting for the holy day: Dad’s got blood sugar issues, and I was wrapping up a course of antibiotics that were causing me to have paranoid delusions when I took them on a full stomach, so there was no way I was going to put them into my system without some sorta buffer.)

I didn’t know you could have a shul inside a house, but one glance through the front-door window told me we were in the right place: a little kid with payess was running down the stairs, followed by several other kids in their “Shabbat best” clothes. I knocked politely on the door, but got no response. Then Dad pointed to the windows from the rec room downstairs. We looked in and saw a tallis-bedecked congregation davening away. We started to walk around the house to see if there was a rear entrance to this in-home temple. As we turned the corner, we were greeted by a young bearded man in a kittlel and tallis.

“Have you come to pray?” he asked.

“Yeah,” my dad said. “I want to pray for my parents. We were going to go to the shul in my son’s town, but on Rosh Hashanah the rabbi wanted them to pray for the Palestinian victims.”

“Really? . . . What a world,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m the rabbi’s brother. Come in!”

As I said, the temple was a converted rec room. There was a narrow aisle to divide the six or seven rows of chairs. The ark for the Torahs was a fireproof safe at the front of the room, behind the lectern where the rabbi stood. A temporary partition separated the women from the men, while most of the children were in the room next door. The rabbi’s brother said, “There are two seats in the front over there. Let me get you a tallis.”

The front row? Great! Now the rabbi can look right at me while I fumble through the Hebrew and miss the responsive cues! Joy!

We settled in our chairs and it was then that I noticed a black hat resting on the windowsill and a dark-suited young man sitting on the chair in front of me. Unlike the rest of us, he wore no tallis, even though the ark/safe was open and a Torah was on the lectern. I consulted with my brother today and found out that unmarried men don’t wear tallises; evidently, it makes for a good singles-signal for the women on the other side of the partition.

Anyway, we read along as they worked through an aliyah or two (it’s a blessing over the Torah; sorry about all the Jewish terminology). Then the rabbi turned to me and kindly asked if I’d like to step up to the lectern for an aliyah. I demurred and offered up Dad. He tried to get out of it by saying that he didn’t know the melodies of the prayers, but the rabbi told him that he’d only have to read the prayer, and they’d take care of the singing. Up he went.

Dad handled himself well. Hebrew was his second (third?) language, so it’s not as if he was going to be tripped up by anything but his eyesight. When he finished, the rabbi said, “You’re from Israel?”

“Not for 40 years now,” Dad replied, in his completely implausible accent.

“Still, you served in the IDF?”

He nodded.

“So why don’t you lead our prayer for the lives of our soldiers?”

At this point, I held my tallis up to my face to stifle my laughter. Our plan for Operation: Yizkor had been to sit in the back row of a large-sized temple, get Dad time to pray for his parents’ souls, and sneak out. Now he was up at the lectern leading a prayer for the IDF, and we were “trapped” in the front row of a rec room-sized shul, sure to be given dirty looks when we sneaked out.

As I said, we tend to think of each other more as accomplices than as father & son.

Dad did fine with the prayer, and once the next congregant came up for an aliyah, he rejoined me in the front row. We followed the prayers and the Torah reading, but then something caught my eye. Next to the black hat on the sill, there was a small metal container. It looked like a shoe-polish tin. A large price sticker covered the top, so I couldn’t discern what it was.

Anoter congregant sat beside the down beside the dark-suited gentleman in front of us. He picked up the tin and opened it, revealing a fine brown powder. He proceeded to take up a pinch of it, snort it deeply into both nostrils, shake his head slightly, sneeze, and close the tin.

I was agog. He was taking snuff? In the middle of shul? During Yom Kippur? When we’re supposed to be “afflicting” our bodies? And no one was saying anything? I turned to Dad and mouthed a “WTF?” but he had been too busy looking around for his friend Guy and hadn’t seen the snuff.

(Now, I’d never actually seen anyone take snuff. I thought it went out of fashion about a century ago. I did attend a high school here in NJ where just about everyone dipped chewing tobacco, but I later realized that they were mostly cretins and that spending 3+ hours in the weight room every day was not going to compensate for the fact that they couldn’t read a book. But I digress.)

Operation: Yizkor was reaching its culmination, and the rabbi took the opportunity to explore the rite and what it meant. Literally, the prayer implores God to “remember” our dead. Given God’s all-seeing- and all-knowing-ness, the rabbi explored the question of why we’d ask this of God. He gave a heartfelt “sermon” about that question, discussing what it means to be Jewish and dead, and Jewish and living. He had a wonderful sequence about how it didn’t matter “what kind of Jew” one was, and proceeded to list a broad spectrum of us. I’m thankful that he included the not-particularly-observant.

As a non-practicing Jew, I tend to feel shame around my devout brethren. I stumble over prayers on the rare occasions that I’m in a shul, don’t know the melodies, and forget response-cues. Visiting my brother’s temple in St. Louis for Shabbat a few years ago, I embarrassed myself by not knowing that you’re supposed to be silent after a ritual hand-washing (and not knowing the prayers associated with the hand-washing). A lot of times, it feels like everyone else knows what page we’re on, and I’m holding the book upside-down.

It frustrates me, but not to the point of wanting to learn it all. An exploration of that would take up a lot more time than I’m willing to devote to it right now.

So, I know the intent of the rabbi’s pre-Yizkor sermon wasn’t to justify my Judaic laziness, but it did offer me some sort of comfort, an alleviation of my shame and awkwardness.

Then we headed out to the kids’ room, while my dad and others who had lost their parents remained for Yizkor. I shot the breeze with the rabbi for a little while. He was interested in the new attendees, and asked plenty of questions about me and Dad. I sorta assume he was trawling for new worshipers, which is understandable.

Unfortunately, I experienced the same odd sensation talking with him that I’ve had in any of my interactions with Hasidic Jews: I feel like they’re hearing another voice in their heads that keeps them from fully engaging in the conversation. It’s as if they talk behind a veil, or as if their words all carrying extra signals that I can’t pick up. It’s not the same awkwardness I feel from not knowing the prayers and rites; rather, I think they’re bursting with God and it’s subtly altered their minds. I wish that didn’t sound condescending; I don’t mean it as such. It may just be a cultural thing, with so many of these Lubavitcher Jews coming from eastern Europe and Russia. Maybe their speech-patterns are just different enough that it leaves me unsettled.

Soon, we were called back in. I sat down beside Dad, and one of the congregants behind me called to the gentleman by the window. He turned around and handed me the tin of snuff, so I could pass it on.

I went right back to agog-ness. Aren’t we supposed to be afflicting our bodies before God? No food, no water, no nothin’! Except snuff?

The services continued, and we tried to figure out the best way to sneak out. Some people were leaving as the prayers continued. They had kids, so it was easier to justify. We were a couple of grown men, with no good excuse.

Eventually, the rabbi came over to talk to us, and asked about Dad’s military service. Then he called to the guy in front of me and asked for the snuff.

I passed it on to him, and said, “Sir, you have to explain this to me.”

“It’s snuff!” he said, smiling and opening the tin. “It helps sharpen the mind. Fasting on Yom Kippur can really wear you down. Want some?”

“. . . Well, sure, but –!” I replied, taking a pinch and inhaling it deeply. It had a spicy odor, and made my nostrils heat up. Of course, I sneezed a few moments later, but it did perk me up a bunch.

Still, I wanted to ask him if taking something like this on Yom Kippur wasn’t ‘cheating.’ Then I thought, “Gil, these guys are a lot more devout than you are. They study Torah and the commentaries all their lives. If they’re taking snuff on Yom Kippur, it must be permitted.”

So I let it go, and got back to the prayers for a bit, until Dad & I saw an opening. A large family was heading out, so we edged sideways and started to move down the aisle. The rabbi noticed, smiled, and shook my hand to thank me for coming. Dad immediately broke into his #1 excuse, “I had open-heart surgery a while back, and I can’t stand too long.”

I would’ve gone with his diabetes — it made more sense as a reason to skip out during a day in which we’re not supposed to eat or drink — but sometimes you need to drop the big one when you’re busted. As it turned out, the rabbi didn’t care about any excuses; he knew we were there for Yizkor, and he seemed happy that the shul was there for us.

I have to say, it was a heck of a good experience for me, to be around devout Jews and not feel like I’m letting the side down. Of course, I didn’t tell them that I have a Christian wife and we have no plans to have kids, but hey.

In a light rain, Dad & I walked back to the car. “They didn’t do the full Yizkor the way I remember it,” Dad said. “Maybe that’s because it was on Shabbat.” We talked for a while about linguistic differences between Hebrew and Yiddish. Dad said they knew he was an Israeli because he pronounced the letter “tov” as a “t,” while they tended to pronounce it as an “s.” He wondered why that happened, where the letter drifted in sounds.

Dad thinks about that stuff a lot. He doesn’t do research to find the answers to this stuff, but I’ve always found it comforting that at least he asks questions.

“I’m proud of you,” I said. “We made it through the whole event and you didn’t make one joke about getting lunch.”

“I’ve got a sandwich in the car. Wanna split it?”

9 Replies to “Operation: Yizkor”

  1. Seriously, how can that be okay? The snuff, I mean. It sharpens the mind and perks you up?
    Maybe a little toothpaste and deodorant would have perked ME up…
    P.S. Loved this post. :)

  2. Maybe they figure that it’s not actually passing through the lips, and the intent is to make the mind sharper for praying.

    If it was some reform shul with a bongo-playing rabbi, I’d have chalked it up to “progressiveness” or something, but these guys are pretty old school, so there HAS to be some sorta justification in the commentaries.

  3. actually Gil, you’re absolutely right – it’s all about not being ingested via the mouth – that makes it OK/kosher –
    I’d forgotten all about the snuff on Yom Kippur until I read your piece, and then remembered sitting downstairs at shul with my father when I was still young enough to do so, and seeing the snuff being used in Hendon shul 60 years ago, but only by those a generation older than my own father – the real “alte kackers” –

  4. Good read, my old friend. I will be forwarding this along to my mother-in-law who runs the Newburgh Jewish Community Center so the ladies may all clamor around her computer and possibly reminisce about the good ole’ days with the men snuffed to keep sharp and wore no tallis as a wink to the girls…….

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