I’ve been fairly mindful of Rosh Hashanah ever since the year my mother died in 2010.
In that first year, I considered attending services a duty to her. My intent was to say Kaddish (the prayer for the dead) on the event of the new year, while taking a bow to the religious experiences that had been so vital to her life.
In searching for a place to go, I came upon Congregation Beit Simchat Torah’s free services at Town Hall. I sat up in the balcony, unsure of what to expect, reading and rereading the order of the service to make certain I wouldn’t miss the Kaddish portion. When services finally began, I was awed by Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum’s exuberant “Happy birthday to the world,” before she launched into her heartfelt welcome, making special mention of those, like me, who had not been to services at CBST before … and for those who might be uncertain of their Jewishness.
Talk about on target! I felt I was surely home and as the service unfolded and the by turns glorious and somber high holiday music feasted my ears, I felt the safety to grieve my mother in a much more spiritual way than I had intended or even considered.
Tonight will mark my 13th year attending services.
This year, as the last two, I shall do so through a zoom connection, but nonetheless am certain I will feel the same connectedness. Still, with yet another year of deep angst over the state of the world, and my own busyness, I feel woefully unprepared for the self examination to come.
I’ve also just watched the first two episodes of Ken Burns new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust. This is not new territory for me, per se, having been conscious of the Holocaust or Shoah since I was a young girl of nine sneaking my mother’s copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William L. Shirer. I’ve also read widely on the subject and have seen most of the major documentary and feature films since the 1970s.
Even so, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw; with images and interviews so intimate as to crawl inside of my being. Nor was I prepared for how the historical references and stories would tease out the profound anti-immigrant and anti-semitic fervor in America. No less so than the reminder that Germany’s 1934 Nuremberg laws received their impetus from the Jim Crow laws of the American South.
It also brought to mind the stories my mother used to tell about her childhood during the Second World War. My grandfather had gotten a job as an engraver working on the Liberty ships being built in Providence, Rhode Island. Having moved from their decidedly Jewish enclave in the South Bronx, Providence felt like an alien place, its buildings smaller yet less intimate, with none of the rich street life of their former home.
Enrolled in the local public school, my mother and aunt were very soon subject to the anti-semitic vitriol of their classmates. They were also physically threatened, to the point where my grandmother sought out and found a tiny Yeshiva school, which they attended until they moved back to New York City at the end of the war.
In thinking of that now and of how very lucky my fairly extended family was to have immigrated to America prior to the imposition of its closed door policies in the early 1920s, I am forever profoundly grateful. None the less, I cannot help but feel unnerved by the current climate of rhetoric that seems borne of the self-same hatred and vitriol of that era.
Tonight I will say “Happy Birthday” to the world and sing God Bless America, by Irving Berlin when prompted, to acknowledge that safe harbor the Jews were able to have for a time.
I will also begin, in these ten days of awe, to think about the atonements I must make for all the wrongdoing that I have incurred. And I will pray for a peace the collective we that is the world cannot seem to find, even as I atone for the negatively of the sentiment.
Wishing you all a Shanah Tovah!
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