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Awesome days of fall: From Rosh Hashanah to Kippur

An Iraqi Jew in New Mexico remembers midnight prayer in the ghetto

It is this time of year again: the harvest is over, the kids are back in school, the fragrance of fresh apples perfumes the grocery stores, and in New Mexico, where I now live, the pungent, smoky smell of roasting chili peppers trumpets the fall season and the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. It is that bittersweet time of year for most of us — time of reflection and maybe introspection.

For Jews, this period is also The Days of Awe, which begins with Rosh Hashanah — this year, it is on September 21 — and ends 10 days later with the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Leading to the Days of Awe are midnight prayers for forgiveness, Selichot, which are no longer practiced or remembered by most .

I still remember my first Selichot prayers in the Iraqi Jewish ghetto of Hila, a little town some 60 miles south of Baghdad. They were simple, but profound for me. They happened during one night of the Days of Awe in 1948 — only a few months after the rebirth of Israel that would change our lives forever — when Baba woke my older brother David and me a little past midnight to accompany him to the synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto for Selichot services.

I was 6-years-old then, and my eyes were half shut, my head in dreamland. But I could feel the cool refreshing air demanding full appreciation, especially in view of the midday sweltering heat that surely would follow.

We walked on the paved street and then turned right onto the alley leading to the synagogue. The alley was a narrow and curvy dirt plank with a tall mud wall on each side and mud homes behind the walls. Every time David and I talked, or as much as said one word, Baba was annoyed and told us to be quiet, because this time of year was a sad time for all Jews. So sad, I thought, the three of us had to walk barefoot to the synagogue.

The night before, Baba said to us, “We must walk barefoot to the Selichot prayers as an expression of mourning for the destruction of our Temple in Jerusalem many, many years ago. And if we step on gravel or shard and hurt the soles of our feet, then our pain will count towards our suffering for the destruction of the Temple. On the other hand,” Baba explained, “on the upcoming Yom Kippur, we shall walk to the synagogue wearing pure white socks to deserve God’s forgiveness.” Noticing that David and I were sleepy, he added: “The Selichot prayers are said way before dawn because that time of day was a willing time, a time when the gates of heaven might be more open to accept our prayers more readily.” I had no idea what Baba was talking about, but whenever he spoke in that tone of voice I knew I’d better not ask.

When we arrived, the synagogue was already half full with fathers and sons ready for the prayer service. I spotted several of my friends sitting quietly next to their fathers. They looked somber, their feet bare, eyes — half-shut. I saw Ron from school and my cousin Yosef, and wondered if they were sinners too.

Services began a few minutes later and we followed the rabbi and cantor as one. The cantor’s voice and the sound of the prayer’s melody sent shivers into my body and propelled me to feel like a sinner asking for God’s mercy and forgiveness. By the time prayers ended, I felt more humble and sinless, whatever that was; the sun that will bake us later in the day was still asleep, and the promise of very early morning breakfast waiting at home felt inviting.

David and I continued going to Selichot services with Baba in the following two years in our Hilla synagogue, and then our lives were upended. In 1951, our family migrated to Israel, where we no longer felt the need to be religious or go to midnight services.

Now all grown up and living in a different continent where one drives to the synagogue wearing designer shoes and socks of any color, I sometimes long for the special atmosphere of the Selichot services season of my childhood, of walking barefoot to the synagogue in the ghetto’s dirt alleys after midnight and praying in a willing time.
Instead, I buy a large burlap bag of roasted chili peppers, which my wife and I clean, rinse, chop, and bag in small Ziploc bags to freeze and use until next fall. And we drive to nearby Apple Valley, southeast of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to pick apples off the trees and — when back home — slice them, dip them in honey and taste the promise of sweet new year. Such are our modern manifestations of the Days of Awe, but deep down the tradition of the awesome days of fall is still one of reflection, introspection, and the promise to be better.

Avraham Shama is a professor of International Business at the University of New Mexico. His Memoir, Finding Home: An Immigrant Journey, is available on Amazon.

About the Author
Avraham Shama is a Professor of International Business, the University of New Mexico. His Memoir Finding Home: An Immigrant Journey, is available on Amazon.
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