I am not sure why I reached for the book on the shelf.
Maybe because I was searching for a high holiday machzor.
Maybe because during this season of remembering, I miss my parents, my mom gone 20 years this fall, my dad, just three years later.
Or maybe, it was time.
Time to hold the book in my hands, to run my thumb up its binding, to caress its worn cover, to open randomly to a page.
It was an old siddur, small in size, its cover embellished with a dainty blue ribbon and bow.
It fell open to the morning blessings, the familiar words of the Modeh Ani, the prayer recited upon arising, marching across the page. It was the blessing I had taught myself after my mother passed away finding solace in taking a few minutes in the early morning quiet to whisper the words in my rudimentary Hebrew.
The siddur was among a pile of books I had taken from my parents’ home after they died when my sisters and I sifted through the accumulation of stuff from their long and loving marriage.
It was painstaking, and painful, work, going through each drawer, each cupboard, each shelf. Not knowing what to keep, what we might want to pass on, what to discard. Not knowing when, if ever, we’d use or even look at the items or if they would remain in a box stashed in a dark closet or hidden in a dusty bookcase.
And yet, something drew me to the sacred books, to put them aside and take them home, where they remained on my shelves for two decades, untouched, unopened.
Until this year.
And so I sat with the prayer book in my hands, looking for a clue as to who had held it in their hands. The title page listed a New York publisher on Rivington Street, but no date.
There was no name inscribed on the cover or handwritten inside. A folded tissue peaked out from the pages, along with a torn leaf neatly folded. An envelope was slipped inside the back cover. A handwritten note from my older sister addressed to my grandma, thanking her for a gift. And I realized that the prayer book belonged to my paternal grandma, and that my mother had likely found it among her belongings and held on to it for safe keeping, just as I had done.
She knew the book was treasured and should be passed on; she took it home with her where it remained on her shelves for so many years waiting for me to find it.
What is it about books that draws us toward them? To texts that contain blessings that many of us no longer recite? To words, even ancient ones, that many of us do not understand? To hold onto them, to keep them, so that perhaps someone else will do the same?
Perhaps we do it because it is a reminder of those who came before us. That we are not only ourselves but part of something larger. And like the books that passed from my grandma’s hands to my mother’s to mine so too are we are made of what came before, even as we reimagine it to comport with our contemporary understandings.
“We did not come from nothing,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
“We are what we are because of those who came before us.”
And so we are.
And so these Days of Awe, the turning of one year to the next, the recounting of our shortcomings, the resolve to do better, remind of that enduring connection to our shared past and its precious legacy.
One book, one word, one blessing, at a time.
And the inherent promise of the Modeh Ani, the blessing of each new day to recover it anew.