In Tishrei, nothing happens except the holidays, one after another after another after another. With selichot, davening, eating, fasting, building, outdoor living and dancing, there is not much time for anything else. So, instead of writing about what happened this month, let me look back and fill in the spaces with memories of times past.
Other than being woken up while it was still dark outside for selichot on erev Rosh Hashana, I do not remember them being observed on such a grand scale the way it is done now with three available time slots each day. I continue to be surprised by the number of people who return to shul for the third time that day at 10 o’clock at night to say selichot. There seems to be greater confidence that an omnipresent Gd does not have limited office hours and can be reached at any time. Chickens were more prominent. You did not have to travel to a different neighborhood and avoid animal rights activists. The boxes with the chickens were delivered by Mr. Goss a few days before Rosh Hashana and their squawking on Shabbat morning before the holiday was a magnet for my friends and me. They were swung over the collective heads of my family members. I have a vague memory that when I was four years old and my mother was pregnant with my sister, there were many hands holding two frightened chickens over her head. No one asked where the chickens ended up. In contrast to tashlich in Flushing Meadow Park which more resembled Tisha B’Av night at the Kotel than a spiritual event, my father, grandfather and I would drive down the East River Drive to deposit our sins in the Schuylkill River. I am sure we thought the faster current and the college crews would dispose of our sins more quickly. But forget the sins –the real concern was making sure my grandfather, who considered himself young despite an ailing heart, would slip in the mud and fall into the water.
In the compact Tolner shtiebel where I davened, there were two rows of seats surrounding the bimah on three sides. My grandfather was the baal tefilla and my father and I sat right behind him. He had pleasing voice and davened simply and without flourishes. He had wonderful melodies that were ingrained into the communal memory and that welcomed people to sing along with him. Since leaving childhood behind, I have enjoyed many people who have been shilchei tzibbur, but I never felt as embedded in the tefilla as I felt then. For the first few years of my ambulatory childhood, we ate in my grandfather’s sukkah along with my aunt and cousins and guests. The sukkah was not canvas or plexiglass panels. It was more like the sukkot depicted in those religious books for children. Boards from the fifties, reused nails, and weather beaten schach. Playing tag at night with my cousins in the alleyway behind the houses while the adults ate was something no one would think of letting their children do today. When my father decided to build his own sukkah, it was a two-walled contraption in our small cement backyard that was tenuously attached to the wall of our house. You had to enter sideways. On Simchat Torah night, I found out that people from all over Philadelphia would drive to watch hakafot. It was celebrity status for my friends and me. The high point was watching the Tolner Rebbe slowly dance with a small Sefer Torah that must have been a family heirloom. With his hands overhead, there was always a space for him in the packed area in front of the bimah. It was a kosher Torah, and despite the microscopic writing, he would layn the end of Zot Habracha from it that night. Over the course of Simchat Torah, from the evening until the middle of the next day, the community all 100 or so (men, women, and children), would go from house to house to enjoy food and drink. Each house was recognized for a specific delicacy. My mother would make terrific stuffed cabbage for Simchat Torah. It was only after moving to New York and being able to go to restaurants on a regular did I realize that stuffed cabbage and Simchat Torah were not inextricably linked. Holidays are handholds as the year passes. The will of our parents, grandparents and great grandparents to make it to the next holiday is testament to their power to sustain life. Fond memories of the past and the effort to populate our present with similar remembrances are the drive that propels us into the coming year
Postscript: The family vacation to Charleston was a complete success. The resort was beautiful, and the ocean water was warm enough to stay in until you got tired. Fort Sumter is actually interesting. The pre-ordered food was delicious, and the amount was the right amount. My sons-in-law accompanied to davening twice a day every day. The Trachtman-Blechner-Greens passed the vacation test.