For pulpit rabbis (and I am certainly no exception) the High Holy Days are a busy, complicated, consequential, and emotionally fraught time of the year.
There are major sermons to be planned, written, and delivered. Synagogue attendance swells as on no other occasion, and there is an opportunity to address and to shape the spiritual experience of the most committed and devoted Jews, as well as those with the most tenuous or peripheral of relationships to Jewish religious and communal life. The rabbinic responsibilities on the holidays include the mundane and the temporal: Is the service on track to conclude on time? What is the name of that fellow in the fourth row? Is the room too hot? Too cold? Of all the moral, spiritual, political, practical, and theological questions bearing on the lives of 21st century Jews, which are properly addressed from the pulpit, and which are to be avoided? Is it time for a page announcement or an “extemporaneous” comment, explanation, “vort,” or a prayer in the vernacular? Are guests and newcomers being suitably welcomed by the community and warmly included in the holiday experience?
With so many details and concerns to manage, it often is difficult for the pulpit rabbi to maximize his or her own personal experience of the Holy Day — the personal reflection, the genuine prayer, the probing moral introspection, the process of sincere repentance that she or he so strives to provide for the rest of the congregation. To lose yourself in prayer is a rare privilege. It is an indulgence.
My own experience of the Days of Awe is colored each year by observance of my mother’s yahrzeit. My mother and teacher, Anne R. Prouser, of blessed memory, died 25 years ago, exactly 24 hours before Kol Nidre. Since family members could not be reached immediately, the funeral was delayed until the day after Yom Kippur. I spent that Holy Day on the pulpit as an “onen” — a mourner in limbo — someone whose departed had not yet been buried.
It was, to say the least, a Yom Kippur still more complicated and far more emotionally fraught than usual. The memory of that experience is evoked (and to some extent revisited) by each annual observance of my mother’s 8 Tishri Yahrzeit.
This year, as I prepare for my mother’s 25th yahrzeit, I have come to discover that the timing of her passing does not compound the obstacles to achieving a satisfying personal experience of Yom Kippur. To the contrary. In both life and death, my mother has taught me some of the most important lessons inherent in Yom Kippur.
A great deal of attention is devoted on Yom Kippur to speech, language, and the power of words variously to harm or to heal. Fully one third of the sins we enumerate in “Al Cheit” and “Vidui” (“Ashamnu”) are related to our use of language. (This emphasis on language is in addition to the ample verbiage deployed in hours of liturgical poetry, prayer, and — God willing — well-crafted homilies.) My mother was my most important, influential, and gifted teacher of language. She was an unforgiving grammarian. She taught all her children the importance of clarity in both the written and the spoken word. Sloppy diction and pronunciation were offenses to be identified and corrected with dispatch (“Al cheit shechatanu…”). Whenever I write a sermon, a letter, a shul bulletin message, or an op-ed piece for the New Jersey Jewish Standard, I feel my mother’s profound influence and her spirit, and I apply specific principles of style and usage that she methodically inculcated in me, beginning at a very young age.
While most of my mother’s linguistic efforts focused on the “King’s English,” she also guided me through years of French literature. “J’enfouis ce trésor dans mon âme immortelle, et je l’emporte à Dieu,” as poet Alfred de Musset wrote (“I enfold this treasure within my immortal soul, and I will carry it to God”). She was just as skilled and attentive in conveying the intricacies of German grammar. Wiederholung ist die Mutter der Weisheit: “Repetition is the mother of knowledge.” (She left my immersion in Hebrew and the ways of Jewish prayer and piety primarily to my father.)
My mother, an alumna of Smith College in our native Northampton, Massachusetts, was a schoolmate of future First Lady Nancy Reagan there. (“We moved in different circles,” she explained delicately.) At Smith she became a gifted linguist. So gifted, in fact, that she was awarded a fellowship to the University of Berlin — which, alas, she was constrained to decline. Berlin was no place for Annie Goldberg in 1938. My mother is remembered by countless Northampton High School students as a much loved teacher of geometry. I often wonder if, after geopolitics derailed her studies as a linguist, she sought refuge in the universal logic and predictable results of mathematics.
My mother died before the advent of email, texting, and Twitter. She was a master of personal letters and thank-you notes, written in elegant longhand. When the need for a commercial greeting card arose, she would add thoughtful personal lines to the printed message. Still, she would torment herself for what seemed hours before selecting the card with precisely the desired sentiment and appropriate nuance.
If I find myself too preoccupied on Yom Kippur to take the liturgy’s focus on language to heart, my mother’s efforts in life, as well as the timing of her passing, more than compensate for my distraction.
Admirably and frankly confronting her own mortality, as we are called upon to do on Yom Kippur, my mother composed her own obituary. If in my holiday preparations I would otherwise neglect this moral and spiritual accounting, 8 Tishri rouses me from my torpor.
My childhood home was directly across the street from my mother’s alma mater. Each summer, students would arrive on our block and unpack their vehicles on their way to Smith’s MSW program. How vividly I remember my mother standing at our living room bay window, envying those aspiring social workers, even in her declining years. She, too, longed to make a difference in the lives of families and individuals navigating life’s challenges, to facilitate reconciliation where relationships had strained, and to offer wise counsel to those unsure of their course or seeking insight and guidance. Of course, she did all this and more, informally, as a function of her personality. But how she admired those who devoted their professional training and energies to such endeavors. If, as Yom Kippur approaches, I find myself too preoccupied with the logistics of the day to attend to those I have offended and to repair strained relationships, my mother’s 8 Tishri yahrzeit restores me to a more appropriate and sensitive set of priorities.
Sadly, my children have few memories of their paternal grandmother. At the time of her passing, my daughter and son were 5 and 3 years old, respectively, and my youngest was in utero. Gratefully, however, each is shaped by her legacy. My youngest — Ayal Chanan — inherited her name, Chanah, as well as her knack of making friends with remarkable ease. My son Eitan inherited his grandmother’s skill as a teacher and her love of music (as well as an extensive album collection of classical music and opera). My daughter, Shira, is a graduate of Columbia University (not Smith College) School of Social Work, and she is an accomplished and devoted practitioner of the profession my mother held in such high esteem. If Yom Kippur Yizkor becomes more of a pulpit task than an exercise in personal reflection (an occupational hazard), my mother’s yahrzeit moves me to remember, and proudly to see her values and efforts taken up by her grandchildren.
What more worthy expression of yizkor?
As the busiest days of my professional year approach, as my congregation convenes for their observance, and as my family gathers to celebrate together and to mark the yahrzeit of our mother and grandmother (and, now, great-grandmother) I will do my best personally to embrace the wisdom and prayer, the introspection and reconciliation to which our Holy Days and our tradition beckon us, my rabbinic responsibilities and pulpit functions notwithstanding.
Throughout that process, I take comfort and strength from all I have learned and all I continue to learn from my mother. To my holiday prayers I add these words by the 19th Century American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier:
“We search the world for truth;
We cull the good, the pure, the beautiful,
From all old flower fields of the soul;
And weary seekers of the best,
We come back laden from our quest,
To find that all the sages said,
Is in the book our mothers read.”
I am grateful.
Yehi zichrah baruch. Her memory is a blessing.