It was Yom Kippur 1971. My mother (a Holocaust survivor widowed the previous year at 38 years of age), my brother (recently turned 12), and I (not-so-sweet 16) were sitting in the cheap seats of the auditorium our Conservative synagogue had rented to accommodate the glut of once-a-year-worshippers in San Francisco’s posh South. As behooved the only family in the synagogue that had not fled Germany before the war, we sat high in the upper balcony.
The rabbi had already posted guards – middle-aged identical twins – near the entrances on either side of the main floor – to assure that no one would enter or leave the synagogue once his sermon had begun. He waited sternly at the podium dressed in white satin robes and a matching turban hoping to fill the house while the organist stalled – playing for time the kind of music that in those days preceded the revelation that Bobbi on General Hospital was a hooker before she was a nurse.
My BFF slipped into the back entrance to take a seat on the lip of the balcony, where her father – the President of the Temple – could see from his seat on the bima that she had made it. She smirked back at me and slid her modest dress up her thigh to reveal the black velvet hot pants with the price tag still hanging that she had just lifted from a nearby strip mall. I was shocked. I still am. But I magnanimously giggled back.
My mother opened her purse to hand my brother and me each a Tic Tac before popping one into her mouth. Because, as she put it, “I fasted enough for all of us.”
Just as the twins closed the heavy curtains to signal that the show was on the road, an elderly man appeared at the end of the row. Dirty and dressed in green-brown rags and a tattered watch-cap, he was clutching a greasy brown-paper bag that reeked for all the world of old urine and rotting fish. The worshipers in the row in front of us stood to let him pass, anxiously looking over their shoulders for alternative seating, as the organ player happily churned the Hanover Compendium Vehakohanim, and Mr. Fishbag cleared out the row in front of us and most of our own to take a seat in front of my mother.
This was my chance! But just as my butt left my seat for a better look at the hot pants, my mother pressed me down and pronounced loudly in her thick Polish-Yiddish-Hebrew accent, “VE ARE NOT LEAVING!”
My mother reached into her purse and handed out another round of Tic Tacs. My mother and brother and I rocked our seats with the barely-stifled laughter required of Holocaust survivors and their children in these and all other circumstances. None of us heard or remembers the rabbi’s sermon. But my brother and I will always remember our mother’s.