Words, words, words. So many words. I wake up early these days and rattle off words. I rarely read a book twice, but I’m about to finish my book of slichot for the what? the fortieth time? That’s a lot of times to say a lot of words, most of which I can’t understand, and when I do, I feel alienated from. And in a couple of days I’ll finish another book from cover to cover — my Yom Kippur mahzor. Words, words, words. Sometimes I get lost in the sea of words.
I’m reminded of the love song by Gloria Estefan:
But the words get in the way
There’s so much I want to say
but it’s locked deep inside
When I was young, around this time of the year, my father would love to tell me the story of the poor shepherd boy who came to shul to daven on Yom Kippur with the Baal Shem Tov (he’s a Litvak from Navahrodok so all his rebbe stories were only about the Besht). Not knowing how to read, he sat there mesmerized by the chanting and swaying. And as the excitement rose, and as the crowd appeared to levitate, the shepherd boy did the only thing he knew to do — he wolf-whistled (some say he blew his recorder) as loudly as he could! Imagine that — not a shofar blast, but a wolf-whistle. Of course, the congregants were angry and shouted for decorum, and to have the ignorant boy ousted. And then the Rebbe, as only the Rebbe could, calmed everyone down and said that the simple whistle that emanated from the heart of this peshute Yid (this simple Jew) was more effective, more powerful than everyone’s words, for it alone succeeded in penetrating directly to the heart of God.
Then there is the parallel story of the simple Jew who turns to the Baal Shem Tov (who else!) and confesses that he cannot read and therefore cannot pray. Whereupon the Rebbe asks him if he knows his alphabet, to which the man declares: “Of course!” And the Rebbe then tells him to open his heart and say the alphabet over and over again and leave it to God to rearrange the letters into his prayers (or maybe “His prayers”).
And now here is my story: Last year after Yom Kippur ended, as my father was breaking his fast, he suddenly keeled over. Quick as a flash, my mother caught his plate before the fruit salad spilt all over the floor and, recognizing the symptoms of a stroke, phoned for an ambulance. She got him to Emergency in time for the anti-clotting medication to take effect and prevent permanent damage — at least that’s what they told us.
It turned out that my father suffered no physical damage, like paralysis of the limbs or loss of speech, but, as the days passed, we discovered that he had lost his mind. He was medically categorized as suffering from Delusional Disorder. He started to speak in Russian, Yiddish, Polish, German, Hebrew, Garbish, with smatterings of English. He continuously planned his escape from the hospital, scouting for the exits and the guards while on his way to and from the toilet.
And it’s been downhill ever since.
One year later, he sits in his wheelchair, having lost the ability to walk, moving in and out of lucid thinking like a flickering street lamp that momentarily gives hope, only to have it die the next. One moment, he could be asking after his great-grandchildren, the next, shouting in Yiddish, cursing the Nazis who murdered his family. For you see, at the age of 14, he was alone, orphaned and trapped in a German work camp. Four days before Rosh Hashanah, four days before the camp was due to be ‘rid’ of its last Jews, he and the 250 others escaped via a 200 meter long tunnel, eventually to make his way to the Bielski partisans hidden deep in the impenetrable forests of Belorussia.
I see him now as stuck in that tunnel. There’s light coming in at both ends, but he can’t decide which end to crawl to.
So there he is in the nursing home, stuck: stuck between the horrors of his youth and the good years of his family, past and present, between this world and the next.
And so it was one evening, a few weeks ago, that I went to see him and I noticed that there was a neighborhood minyan gathering in the living room of the nursing home to pray afternoon and evening prayers. I went up to my father’s room expecting him to be in bed, raging before passing out for the night. Instead, I found him sitting in his wheelchair looking very passive and awake. I asked him if he wanted to join in the prayers. He grunted for what I took as a ‘yes’ and I wheeled him to the living room.
Even though I was worried that he would start shouting in the middle, I felt that he had a right to be there, that he might enjoy it, that it might shift a neuron or two, and maybe, who knows…
Immediately the organizer of the minyan approached me and said that my father couldn’t stay, that he had to leave. Why? Because he didn’t have a kipa on his head. I pointed out that there is no real necessity for his head to be covered especially if he was not even capable of praying, and, besides which, this was a living room, his living room, and not a Beit Knesset. The man insisted and I resisted. But then I decided to back down — remembering that we were here to pray, not to war. I took my hat out of my bag and stuck it on my father’s head. Appeased, we started: “Happy are they that dwell in Your house…”
I stood next to my father whispering the words into his ear. He seemed to be listening, recognizing, maybe even understanding. We finished mincha (afternoon prayers) without incidence and, without pause, dived immediately into maariv (evening prayers). We reached the Shema Yisrael — Hear Israel… I bent closer to my father’s ear and said the words. His lips synced to mine — at least I want to believe so.
And then suddenly, out of nowhere, he started yelling: “Do you hear me?? Do you hear me??” Everyone looked round. The minyan organizer was clearly agitated. He gestured (speaking during the prayer is forbidden) for me to leave. I gestured defiantly — no! “…And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with your soul, and with all your strength…”
And then my father screamed: “Du verstehst??? Do you understand???”
That was it, the man stormed over and started to push the wheelchair backwards; I counter-pushed, while we both continued muttering the prayers under our breath — “Whether you sit in your house or whether you walk by the way.”
And then a hysterical, “No!!!” from my father. The man went berserk. Again I decided to beat a retreat, both from a sense that it wasn’t fair on the others and also that this minyan did not deserve my father to be amongst it.
Together, outside the room, my father silently waited for me to finish my silent prayer. And then I took him to bed.
I often ponder what happened there. How aware was my father to what was happening? Was he really praying? I hope so. And what would the Baal Shem Tov have said had he been there? Would his Hasidim have lifted up my Abba and danced with him while crying out to Our Father in Heaven: “Abba! Do you hear us? Do you understand us?”
May the words of our heart be heard in the heart of Hearts, and may we dwell in health and peace.
Gmar Hatima Tova
To the memory of my grandmother and grandfather whose Yahrzeit my father commemorates on Yom Kippur.