It only takes one person to role model how best to handle the foul balls life throws at us. For me that individual is Celia, my ceramics teacher who I have known for ten years, and who stands head and shoulders above everyone else I have met during my forty-six years of living in Israel.
Twenty-one years ago Celia made Aliya from Argentina with her husband and teenage son. A half year later her only child was killed in a terror attack. I can’t imagine greater devastation. Celia’s world and all that she dreamt of collapsed, yet the way she took charge of her emotions and conducted herself was and continues to be worthy of emulation. That doesn’t mean Celia is super human. This past week when everyone wished each other an easy fast at the end of class, she said: “I don’t have to ask God for forgiveness. God has to ask me.”
Celia is not a revenge seeker. The words were uttered quietly and calmly, and I silently saluted her; while she has every right to be angry at God, she ironically epitomizes the true essence of Yom Kippur – Tikkun Atzmi, repairing oneself. No one I know has worked harder to lift herself out of the abyss of despair, grudge bearing and cynicism. She holds her head high and is a paragon of respect, giving, understanding and acceptance.
Tikkun Atzmi is why for me Yom Kippur shines out among all our holidays. As Summer slinks into Fall, I look forward to being lulled into the undulating rhythm of its beautiful piyyutim (liturgical poems) sung in the synagogue. It’s a holy day that has no culinary connotations; a holiday without the hysterical hype of Simchat Torah and Purim. A day during which the only candles burning bright are those commemorating our lost loved ones. It’s a day just for me, myself and my heritage. A one-day-a-year opportunity to spend 24 hours looking inward, taking stock of the mistakes I made, the bloopers I said, examining what can be improved, how to better help those near and dear, how to reach out to the other, how to get a better grip on worry – and the biggest challenge of all, how to stay calm in this crazy country that I adore.
Yom Kippur’s Tikkun Atzmi is one of Judaism’s most beautiful gifts. Teaching it can start at an early age. While my star holiday is not part of my personal literary cannon, there are wonderful picture books that teach its essence. The one in particular that resonates with me is a classic: “The Hardest Word” by Jacqueline Jules. A delightful tale starring a lovable, klutzy bird named Ziz, it will speak to all children who have mistakenly broken a precious piece belonging to someone else. Self-repair starts with building up the courage to admit wrongdoing and to say “sorry.” It’s a lesson that Ziz learns and through Ziz, the innumerable amount of children who have had it read to them since it came out in 2001.
There are two picture books that came out this year which also speak to my Yom Kippur passion, one of which is not written specifically for this holiday, but rather the general market. The first is Kalaniot Books’ offering for this year’s Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur season. Written by award-winning author Liza Wiemer, “Out and About” is a marvelous tale tapping into Maimonides’ eight levels of charity, particularly the elevated ranking of gifting anonymously. The second book speaks volumes to me, and I haven’t even read it yet (only the reviews). “Nila’s Perfect Coat” by Norene Paulson destigmatizes second-hand clothing stores through a heartwarming story of a little girl who turns a thrift shop purchase into an act of kindness. Just reading the review touched my heart as for decades a close friend of mine ran a similar shop in Petach Tikvah that I patronized when my husband and I were a young, struggling couple. It appears that the selflessness of Nila is an antidote to today’s selfie era of self-absorption. I ordered a copy and am looking forward to bringing this Iowa author’s book over to Israel for a joint read-aloud with my granddaughter.
Which brings me back to Celia, who unfortunately has no grandchild to read to and never will. But part of her amazing Tikkun Atzmi is never to miss a beat, asking everyone about their grandchildren. Her astounding resilience reminds me of my late father’s mantra: “Self-preservation first.” Meaning, that in order to help others you must first help yourself. Or in Yom Kippur terms, before you begin your Tikkun Olam journey first embark on a Tikkun Atzmi.
May you have a meaningful fast and day of self-reflection.