Rosh Hashanah, a day noted also as Yom Hazikaron, is normally translated, and considered in Israel to be Memorial Day. Yet Rosh Hashanah is not Memorial Day. It is not a cemetery day or a Yizkor day. On the contrary, Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, coronation day for the King, a day of celebration, a day we beg His Highness to grant us life and love and prosperity and good health throughout the coming year.
Over the years I have experienced tfilla in grand shuls with Chief Rabbis in attendance. I have merited to pray in batei medrashim, in study halls led by great Roshei Yeshivot. And one year I spent Yom Kippur with my husband in the emergency room at Hadassah Hospital. It was the first time in two-score plus years that my husband was unable to perform as Baal Tfilla. I spent a good part of that day praying in the Chagall-windowed shul at Hadassah, where the glass ceiling nearly shattered from the cries of congregants, “Avinu Malkeinu, send a complete recovery to the sick of your nation.” That Yom Kippur turned into the most unforgettable experience of my life. Until this year, 5,781.
Standing across the cracked path on the shady, tree-lined area, surrounded by run down stucco Katamonim shikunim, behind a low stone fence crawling with ants, I imagined I heard my mother’s voice. I heard her say: ”Az men lebt, derlebt men.” If one lives long enough, one lives to experience everything.
I remember davening alongside my maternal grandmother in the beautiful shul in Williamsburg where my grandfather served as caretaker. I remember sitting next to my paternal grandmother in the Brooklyn brownstone, the Novominsker Rebbie’s shtibel, a few houses away from ours, where most of the women were older and came to shul to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and for Yizkor on Yom Kippur. I remember the beautiful tfilla of Rabbi Mannes Mandel in the study hall of the Mesivta, before I married and left the United States for Israel.
Covid 19 has deepened my vibrant memory; lockdown has added another dimension to life, an invisible third eye plastered across my forehead. A surrealistic scene seemed to be unfolding on Rosh Hashanah, as if a happening in Tevya’s Anatevka, or maybe my great grandparents’ Hungarian village two centuries ago. All of this was revealed through that valuable third eye, in twenty- first-century Israel. Six months ago it was a Pesach Seder together with a couple, valuable neighbors. It was a first for the three of us who had never participated in a Seder without our families in attendance. And now Rosh Hashanah, once again, unusual circumstances.
“So what are you doing this year Rosh Hashanah?” That question was put to me at least fifty times this past month. I had plan A, and plan B. In the end, plan A was executed beyond anything I had imagined.
An open air service, outdoors, at the entrance to my son’s apartment building, saw a simple, freestanding, hammered together Aron Kodesh, with a curtain produced by one of the neighborhood women. My son’s hand-made, collapsible, raw wood table for the Sefer Torah to rest upon was set up in the center of a dusty, unpaved, wooded area. Computer printouts pinned to the bark of the trees designated the capsuled sections, children’s swings hung from long twisted ropes attached to the branches, and tiny tots rolled back and forth in their plastic mobiles on the cracked path, while stray cats ran in and out of open spaces. Groups of children eagerly awaited the packaged sweets distributed by an elderly neighborhood resident, pedestrians moved back and forth past the tfilla in progress, some dressed for the holiday, others oblivious to the holiday, and oblivious to any respectful dress code.
An amazing shofar blower with a beautiful shofar that was wrapped in a colorful checkered cotton cloth sounded for the entire neighborhood to hear. The crowd stood in awesome distanced silence, the tweet of birds harmonized with each shofar blast; and there I stood, the blue sky above, tears that could have filled more than one cup were blotted by my mask, unable to glisten in the hot sun or dried by the soft occasional breeze.
I was always the youngest daughter, the youngest sister, the youngest aunt, and at one time a very young grandmother, and suddenly I found myself the eldest member of the congregation, surrounded by young families from varied backgrounds. We weren’t praying in Beit Knesset, in Beit Hashem, in G-d’s House, we met the King in the field. Young men and women, organized this odd outdoor communal prayer service admirably. The youngsters set a stage for coronation of the King that unfolded in front of my aging eyes. They allowed me the privilege to lift my black plastic chair and move out of the women’s capsule onto an open side section in line with the baal tfilla, enabling me to hear every word of the tfilla, every word of the Torah reading, and answer “Amen” to all the blessings.
King Solomon, the wisest of men, summed it up best. “The glory of the young is their strength; the gray hairs of experience is the splendor of the old.” Proverbs: 20:29