“And obscure as that heaven of the Jews”

(There’s a slideshow. Try that instead.)

I really did try. I went to shul on Erev Rosh Hashanah, back to the temple where I attended Hebrew school as a kid. I hadn’t been inside since 2001. There were about 18-20 people in attendance. Most everyone was celebrating the new year at home; there would be plenty more people on Thursday. Before services began, I heard one of the men say, “I should feel sorry for him? Why? We’re all in this together.” It felt like a credo.

A new rabbi had started at the temple a week or so earlier. I imagine it was daunting for her. Sure, I’ll likely have to give a short speech in front of 200 or so conference attendees on Tuesday morning, but they won’t be looking to me for any sorta spiritual guidance. Or so I hope.

Before the services began, I felt out of place. I mean, I hadn’t really been in shul this decade, and remembered almost nothing of the prayers. Still, I found I was able to follow along with the Hebrew pretty well, and the melodies of the prayers were still embedded in my brain, in the same section where I recently uncovered Glenn Campbell’s version of Southern Nights.

Anyway, the new rabbi started off alright. She called us all to the front of the seats, since there were so few of us and it would feel more intimate this way. We prayed, we sang, we read responsively: it was a celebration, bitches.

Then she gave her prayer/wishes-for-the-new year, in which she called for “action” in Darfur, offered her sympathy to the Palestinian people, and condemned Dick Cheney for leaking Valerie Plame’s identity. I thought, “Y’know, you could just wish for justice and peace in our time, and you’d probably sound a lot better.” It bothered me that she’d use the pulpit as a bully pulpit.

Exasperated, I rolled my eyes. It was then that I noticed I was seated beside the temple’s memoriam board, a wall display of small brass plaques with names and dates of death. I started reading over the names carefully, fearing who I’d find there. My friend Mandy’s dad was on the board, dead in 1993. Rabbi Sprinzen, who taught me, dead since the late 1980s.

I was midway through the board’s third column, when I saw the plaque for Saul Kohn. He died Sept. 1 2005, a month before Rosh Hashanah, and sixty years after being freed from Auschwitz.

I hadn’t seen Mr. Kohn in 10 years, back at the time when I’d at least occasionally go to shul. I knew he’d be listed among the dead, because otherwise he’d have walked up to me outside the temple, greeted me with a smile and handshake, and implored me to sit with him during services.

If you want to learn more about his life from the people who knew him and loved him, download this PDF. (It’s about 3mb.) I think it’ll give you a better impression than I could of what he meant to the community and what he tried to do with his life after Auschwitz.

I left temple that night wondering what’s going to happen when all the survivors have died? When I asked my brother for his impressions of Mr. Kohn — he knew him much better than I did — he asked the same question.

I woke up Thursday and decided I’d find a different way to celebrate the new year. I spent the morning writing to a number of friends and family whom I’d lost contact with in recent months, and then I headed into NYC to do something I’d never done before: walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Because of the hassles of getting to the city from where I live, I rarely go over into Brooklyn. So my buddy Mark, who lived in Brooklyn for years before moving up to Harlem, offered to be my tour guide (no “Virgil to my Dante” references for this trip). He told me that he’s walked across all the pedestrian-permitted bridges in the city, and was astonished to find that I’d never crossed any but the GWB.

Mark — not Jewish, but a public school teacher, hence his availability on Rosh Hashanah — led me on a merry jaunt through the borough and back into lower Manhattan. His knowledge of the area was virtually encyclopedic, and he enjoyed showing off the view from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, Henry Miller’s home, the statue of Fiorello LaGuardia, and a million other sights.

I didn’t talk with Mark about Saul Kohn, but we did talk about Jewish contributions to American culture and learning. Mark waxed rhapsodic, putting me to shame with his knowledge of Jews. Discussing a different topic, I remarked, “It’s amazing that, despite the massive lacunae in my reading, people still think I’m smart as shit.”

I’m always happy to learn, but I try to take in so much that it all overlaps, like this brick palimpsest.


It was an impossibly lovely day to walk across the bridge: warm, dry, breezy and almost cloudless. The views were gorgeous. I was afraid the time of year, the beautiful weather, the lower Manhattan skyline, and the footsteps across the bridge would put me in mind of 9/11, but I felt very present-tense, and maybe even future-comfortable.

We parted around Madison Square Park, and I waited for my wife to finish work and some shopping, so we could ferry back to NJ, pick up the car, and get home. And that was my happy new year.

(I did warn you to go straight to the slideshow, didn’t I? It has plenty of neat details about our walk through Brooklyn.)

3 Replies to ““And obscure as that heaven of the Jews””

  1. Gil, you’re the only friend I’ve ever had who could wonder after his intellectual well-being and casually drop the word lacunae in the same sentence.

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