I’ve always had a certain kind of dread as the days get shorter and fall approaches. This year, threats of rising Coronavirus cases in adjacent neighborhoods, and stress about the impending election only fueled my rising anxiety after a summer of unrest here in NYC. I took some time last week to gather my thoughts.
“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known,
When I was young and dreamed of glory.
You have no control.
(Who lives, who dies, who tells your story)
I’ve been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack a lot these past few weeks. When the album first came out, I couldn’t get enough of the clever rhymes, the quick beats, the brilliant hilarity of “You’ll Be Back”. This time around, I’ve focused my obsession on three songs that are neither upbeat nor funny, but reach me in a place so deep that there is only one word strong enough to describe it. These songs hit me in my kishkes.
This time of year has always been hard for me. As a child in an ultra orthodox family, to say the High Holidays were no fun would be a gross understatement. This was not a joyful season, but the most solemn, holy time of the year when we were in control (somewhat) of our destiny, for the next year at least. If we were good, did good deeds, listened to our parents, loved God, then we would have a good year, but if we transgressed, the consequences could be dire. We were taught that until we reached the age of maturity – 12 for girls and 13 for boys, our parents were responsible for all our sins. If we were righteous, no one reaped the rewards, but if we were sinners, our parents paid the price. In fact, it is customary for orthodox parents to say a blessing when their children (boys) become a Bar Mitzvah, “Blessed is God that releases me from responsibility.” Since women (girls) are not required to fulfill as many commandments as boys, they had fewer opportunities to sin and so their passage to the age of responsibility did not bear mention.
“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangulation and who by stoning, who shall have rest and who wander, who shall be at peace and who pursued, who shall be serene and who tormented, who shall become impoverished and who wealthy, who shall be debased, and who exalted.” https://youtu.be/iVXOKL_boeQ
Each year, as I sat in services next to my mother and grandmother, I would look around at the other women and girls praying fervently during this portion of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” I can remember year after year wondering who among us in that room, at that very moment were about to be doomed. Who would be destined to die that year, and who would be fated for suffering. I remember latching onto the words “sitting duck” in my mind, and that is an image I’ve had to work hard to not conjure up every year. I can remember thinking how futile all this prayer was for those who were not lucky enough to make it into the Book of Life, and how this thought repulsed me. It always seemed like God was waiting for me to screw up, to forget to do something or to do something that I shouldn’t. It was too much responsibility for me to take on, and to take in.
I was a thoughtful, serious child who felt everything deeply, often too deeply, but I never felt safe enough to talk through my feelings with anyone. When I try to remember much of my earlier years there are great holes, where for one reason or another I must have wiped out huge portions of my memories. Still, there are moments that have remained untouched in my mind. One of those moments is a bit of a lesson taught by my fourth grade teacher. It must have been around this time of year, and the teacher was talking to us about sinning and different ways in which one could be punished. Someone asked her why, if children are not held liable for their transgressions do they get sick and sometimes die, and I remember feeling relieved that someone had given voice to the question I had been too afraid to ask. Without hesitating the teacher looked at us, a group of silent eight and nine year old girls, and told us that children suffer because their parents were sinners. Sometimes, she told us, it wasn’t the fault of the parents but the fault of the child’s soul that had been reincarnated only to fix a wrong done in a previous life. Once that soul had done its work, it was time for it to move on. Nobody said a word. I did not raise my hand to ask any of the questions I had as I tried to understand what could never, what should never, make sense. Why should a child suffer for their parents’ sins? Why should parents pay the ultimate price for what happened in another universe? I didn’t get it at the time, but I believe that this was the moment I realized that I wanted no part of a God or a Judaism that believed this was just.
“There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable”
Seven years ago on the day before Rosh Hashanah, a six year old member of my community died. I’d long since moved away from the idea of the revengeful, vindictive God of my childhood, and given up the idea of a personal God at all. Services became a time for me to connect with my community, and the prayers became the vehicles for connection as we sang loudly or were silent together. As I walked home from the child’s funeral to begin my preparations for the houseful of guests that were coming to share the holiday dinner with us, it was as if I was back in that fourth grade classroom. I no longer believed that our day-to-day lives were scrutinized or manipulated by a higher power, and yet there I was, furious at a God that allowed this to happen. It’s easier, I think, to have something or someone to blame when the worst one can imagine happening has happened. I’ve held on to that fury for seven years, which feels both like yesterday and an eternity all at the same time. I did not join my family at services that year, nor have I on any High Holiday since – until last week.
“Who by earthquake and who by plague”
Services came to us this year through a computer placed on my dining room table. I certainly wasn’t planning on joining in, I didn’t even want to hear any of it, but NYC apartments make it really hard not to hear what is happening just down the hall. I found myself drawn back to the familiar tunes, and it was as if the years of absence never happened, and the words no longer held the ability to transport me back to a place of trauma. What used to make me feel threatened was now calling me to power.
“You will come of age
With our young nation
We’ll bleed and fight for you
We’ll make it right for you
If we lay a strong enough foundation
We’ll pass it on to you
We’ll give the world to you and you’ll blow us all away
We are in the midst of one literal plague, but are suffering from so many more. Who by racism. Who by brutality. Who by police violence. Who by baseless hatred of the other. Who by willful ignorance. Who by apathy.
This is not the world that I wish to pass on. As an eight year old I knew intuitively that children are not meant to suffer for the sins of their parents, despite being taught the opposite. Why are we leaving our children to pay the price for ours?