As it happened, the Yom Kippur 5780, in October 2019, was the last normal pre-covid service that we, and so many others, attended.
We were very lucky at the time, and the meaning of that luck, and that light originated at the moment, has become seen by us in a perspective. As it happened normally.
In October 2019, my husband Michael and I were invited to attend Yom Kippur service by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and our dear friend Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld who was serving until recently as a Senior Rabbi at the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in London. The very Synagogue where Rabbi Sacks was serving for many years before he became the Chief Rabbi of the UK, and where he was administering the High Holidays always.
We were invited not only to join dear friends for the most memorable and important services opening the forthcoming year, but also to remember together the man whom Rabbi Sacks, Rabbi Rosenfeld and us did love and missed dearly, Leonard Cohen.
I have written about that most beautiful and unforgettable Yom Kippur in London with Rabbi Sacks as it happened, two years ago. The essay How to Speak With the Creator in a Low Voice can be read here.
The covid pandemic did strike the world shortly after. It was the last of huge, fantastic, one-of-the-kind High Holiday services at our beloved Western Marble Arch Synagogue till this year. It was also the last time when we saw, spoke and spent some time together with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
So very often, Michael remembers how Rabbi Jonathan and Lady Elaine and us departed. “After we said ‘Good bye, good night, seeing you soon’, Rabbi Jonathan was looking at us in a special way. Although we were about to move and actually started moving away from him and Lady Elaine, he was staying there still, not moving. He was looking at us both in that special way that I have noticed momentarily and do remember ever since. Was he parting with us, for good?..” – Michael thinking all the time after that so special, so meaningful, so soft and thoughtful departure from the Sacks couple on the late evening in the London well-known hotel after the end of the Yom Kippur service 5782, 2019. It was the last public Yom Kippur service administered by Rabbi Sacks. Of course, he knew his severe diagnoses already then, as the medical trouble was continuing for him for years.
Michael loved Rabbi Jonathan dearly, as many of the people all over the world do, and he feels so much in-tuned into his way of thinking and relating his thoughts. In his turn, Rabbi Sacks – as Leonard Cohen, too – did like what Michael is doing, his art, very much, and understood it deeply. There has been some special bond between the men, of that special deep mutual understanding, and that very rare in our life organic gentleness, if not tenderness towards each other. A day or so before, Michael gave to Rabbi Jonathan and lady Elaine his very special work which he did, based on my authored print, specifically for Rabbi Sacks. It was a metaphorical portrait of Moses referring to the quality of Moshe Rabbeinu mentioned in the Torah: ‘ And the face of Moses was radiating light’.
As Michael started to comment on his work while entrusting it to smiling Rabbi Sacks, dear Jonathan was beaming himself, while showing the work to lady Elaine: “Look, Elaine, look, how beautiful it is!’ – he was repeating as a happy child keeping the work in his hands tightly. I will always remember his smile, his excitement, his joy while looking at Michael’s Moses, and holding the work by both hands so closely to his heart.
The High Holidays at the Western Marble Arch Synagogue also meant spectacular Shabbaton Choir performances, making the whole experience of the High Holidays service there in London a very special emotional gift to everyone present. As it happened, for inexplicable reason, that year precisely, two years ago, in 2019, Rabbi Rosenfeld, the great leader of the Shabbaton, Rabbi Sacks who was always joining the Choir at the High Holidays, Stephen Levey, the choir’s great musical director, has decided to record some of the performed services. Not before, and not after, just then. When we all had a normal life, were enjoying great services, and saw our friends as one should. Just before the menace of covid pandemic struck the world. Just before Rabbi Sacks’s health would turn into its insuperable turn.
As many times as I am thinking about that superb recording of the High Holiday services, as many times I am speechless in awe of the power of intuition of those people who were blessed with the vision to do it. That record is the last public appearance of Rabbi Sacks with the Shabbaton Choir in the High Holidays liturgy. It is priceless. And for us personally, it is infinitely priceless because it was done at the time when we saw, spoke and spent some time with such giant as Rabbi Sacks for the last time. The great Shabbaton Selihot film is here.
Recently, Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld has moved with his wife Natalie to join their large wonderful family in Jerusalem. We still are under various covid pandemic restrictions making our services not what they used to be, and our communications, too. We still are longing for normality. The normality which actually was a very rich life, socially, culturally, and in many other ways as well.
Longing for that rich normality, I am thinking about that deep, gracious, intelligent, kind, warm, brilliant Yom Kippur two years ago in London, where great Rabbi Sacks led the huge, unanimously loving him community into the new Jewish year, for the last time. He was speaking a lot about another Jewish giant whose impact was felt far beyond the Jewish world, his beloved Leonard Cohen. Very soon, as unbelievable as it is, we will mark the fifth anniversary of dear Leonard’s passing. And the first anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Jonathan. On the same day, November 7th.
Would you believe that those two giants had left this world on the same day, in a four years’ distance? Many of us would not, but each of them would. I know it for sure, as I knew and loved those two heroes of our time dearly. Neither Leonard, nor Jonathan would not be surprised by such ‘coincidence’. They both were real Masters in reading those signs of Upper Power.
We miss both of them terribly. And my thoughts around Yom Kippur are circling around that service in London where Rabbi Jonathan spoke about Leonard with his customarily depth, brilliance and love. When Yom Kippur occurs on such notes, with such tangible presence of our giants, their light sustains us with their unique grace, their unforgettable smiles, their ever-present looks of those special eyes which knew so much, and saw it all. Even us, without them, today.