Last Thursday was Yom Kippur, so Dad & I made our return to the Chabad Jewish Enrichment Center in Chestnut Ridge, NY for Yizkor, the prayer for one’s departed parents (and other family members). I wrote all about the JEC last year, so go check out the details and get back here.
Last year on Yom Kippur, I was on antibiotics that were causing me to have paranoid delusions, so I skipped the ritual fasting (no food, no fluid, no nothing for 25 hours). In relatively better health this year, I decided to give it a go. I hadn’t reckoned on how much I increased my dependence on coffee in recent months; Dad came by to pick me up around 10 a.m., and I was already thrumming and out of it. And I had another 9+ hours to go.
Fortunately, Dad made the drive “entertaining” by
- talking about cooking shows and food most of the time (his diabetes precludes him from fasting),
- talking about how good “that one white player” on the U.S. Olympic basketball team was, until I realized he was referring to Jason Kidd,
- employing a GPS unit that was so faulty I named it “SPG,” which led to
- getting so lost that I had to bust out my iPhone to figure out where we were and how to get to the JEC.
When we arrived, we stayed in the back of the rec-room/shul. There were 25-30 men present. The rabbi saw us and walked back to greet us in kittel and Crocs (no leather footwear on Yom Kippur), while the chazzan was conducting a prayer. He remembered us from last year and even recalled Dad’s father’s Hebrew name. I’m sure he has to have a good memory for the once-a-year Jews like us.
After shaking my hand and wishing me a good new year, he said, “I’m glad you’re here! We need you to open the ark and bring the Torahs out!”
The lack of caffeine and my blood-sugar wackiness were taking a toll on me. Addled and thick-tongued, I said, “Uh, um, I don’t have to do a blessing, right?”
“No! We just need your muscles!”
“. . . In that case, you might be better off asking me to read Aramaic,” I said, following him up the narrow aisle to the pulpit/reading table.
He directed me to open the fireproof safe on the wall, remove the first Torah and hand it to the chazzan. I took each velvet-covered scroll out carefully, avoiding any contact with the ark/safe as though I was playing Operation. The chazzan, in white socks and flip-flops, carried his Torah into the congregation. I followed him through the shul. Each congregant touched the Torah cover with the corner of his tallis or his prayerbook, then touched that corner to his lips.
We finished our circuit, crossing the partition so the women and children could also receive the Torahs’ blessing, and the chazzan put his on the reading table, while I was instructed to sit down in the front row and hold the second one. The top handles of this Torah were covered by decorative ornaments (rimonim) that had little silver bells dangling from them. I kept trying to find a sitting position that was comfortable, respectful, and didn’t cause constant jingling noises, in ascending order of importance.
While I kept the noise down, congregants were called up to perform aliyah, the blessing over the Torah. Dad was the second or third one called up, and performed admirably. I even began to feel a little of The Resonance, watching my dad recite the blessing. Holding the other Torah against me, I thought about atonement, and what we were supposed to be doing that day. I feel like I’ve already atoned for most of the wrongs I’ve committed against people in my life, but that’s not what this day is about. This is about atoning toward God, and I don’t know how to do that.
Following (I think) six aliyah over the first Torah, and then another over the second Torah, it was time for the Torah reading, followed by a sermon from the rabbi. Now, the JEC’s high holiday schedule indicated that Yizkor was supposed to be at 11:45 a.m., but it was around half-past-noon when the rabbi was wrapping up his sermon. I don’t think this so much an instance of Jewish Mean Time as it was a matter of making sure that less observant congregants didn’t pray and dash.
The sermon consisted of the rabbi telling a story of the Baal Shem Tov telling a story, and in a reverie I wondered if the layers would keep growing, with each storyteller launching into another story of a storyteller, all carrying the theme of Jews’ obligations to each other and God. The rabbi, feeling less postmodern than I was, elected to keep it relatively simple, although his story did rely heavily on the prospect of reincarnation and explicitly mentioned Purgatory as an afterlife destination. His message: live up to the Torah, because you may be in this world in order to “get it right this time.”
After he finished, those of us who haven’t lost our parents went outside, while the others stayed in for Yizkor. The rabbi was lucky enough to be among our number, so we shot the breeze in the backyard. He asked me, “So what do you do when you’re not praying and studying Torah?”
I filled him in on my day job. He asked for details about the nature of business magazine publishing, how we’re adapting to the internet, and why he only sees me once a year. “Because I’m not a very good Jew,” I told him. I thought about some of the others I’d seen that morning in shul, who were even less educated in Judaism than I am, but were still there to pray.
“But you’re here today!”
“I guess I’m a half-decent son.”
“That’s a start!”
We walked over to the main group of people, and the rabbi’s wife told the story about how she once passed out in the middle of Yom Kippur in an overcrowded shul. It turned out she was pregnant with their first child. Someone pointed out that it’s good to keep smelling salts on hand during the day. The rabbi said that they usually do, but he couldn’t find any this year. I mentioned how disappointed I was that there was no snuff circulating the services this year. He laughed and told me to come back next year, and maybe they’ll have some.
Once the prayer was complete, we returned to the shul. The rabbi collected the names of all the dead from the congregants, so he could lead a prayer for them. When that was done, we noticed that others were getting up and heading outside, so we took our cue to leave. The rabbi caught us and took my arm, saying, “No! We need you to put the Torahs back in the ark! It’ll only be another five minutes!”
As he led me back up the aisle, one of the congregants said, “That’s ‘five minutes’ in Jewish time!”
I told Dad that he could wait in the car, figuring that he might be light-headed from sugar-crash and would need to snack on the banana that he brought along, but he stayed. And so we prayed further, and I lifted the first Torah from the reading table. About to place it in the ark, I said to the rabbi, “It’s a 40-day fast if I drop this, right?”
“Right! So don’t drop it. You don’t want that much atonement!”