I love that time of year that we Jews call the High Holidays. There is some component in the ambiance surrounding it here in Israel that I never experienced anywhere else in the world that I either lived in or visited. This year’s occasion had an extra special flavor to it. It was the first time in many years that I have visited the memory lane of my childhood in Raanana, Israel.
A friend invited me to join him and his family to services at the big synagogue there. It was the same synagogue where my father used to belong to and where he prayed on every Shabbat and during the holidays. It is the one he used to take me along with him when I was a child during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement – two of the most important Jewish Holidays..
Those were very special times for me. They always started days in advance with the spiritual preparation that pervaded our home with the holy atmosphere this time of year. First, we would send real greeting cards (remember those?) to all relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Then we would concentrate on moral stock-taking and introspection into one’s deeds and misdeeds for the previous year, which had engaged everyone for days, particularly me. “Had I wronged anyone, intentionally or unintentionally? Had I transgressed against the G-d of the fathers? Or broken any of his commandments? Would my name appear in the Book of Life?”
On Rosh Hashanah, and ten days later, on Yom Kippur, my mother would dress me up in my favorite white dress; I felt the sanctity of the occasion, and, placing my small hand in my father’s, proudly walked with him to the synagogue. I remember how I reverently watched my father put on his blue and white prayer shawl, open his prayer book and join in the service. There I had stood next to him watching him pray, rocking back and forth with great devotion and sincerity. I knew that in those moments he was closer than ever to G-d. I was proud of him, of his holiness and righteousness.
My eyes would then wander to the Ark, where the Torah scrolls had rested. I would ask myself “I wonder if this is where G-d dwells when he visits our community.” I studied the Ark, examining its velvety purple curtain, lavishly and intricately embroidered with gold and silver threads. It had seemed as if at any minute G-d would walk out of there. He would show up in all of His glory, surrounded by a host of celestial entities dressed in white, wearing a silken headdress with tiny gold bells, in clouds of gold dust painting little shiny rainbows in the air while singing songs of praise to the Almighty. “Our Father, our King, have mercy on us… “– suddenly awoke me from my reverie – “for we have sinned,” I had heard my father continue in a humble voice, “we have deceived, cheated, slandered, stolen… “
My eyes would occasionally catch my father shedding a tear during the High Holiday services. It usually happened during the recitation of the Unetaneh Tokef (Let us proclaim the mighty holiness of this day). Rabbi Amnon, a martyr, a legendary figure in Judaism, who had lived in Mainz, Germany, in the tenth century, had composed the prayer. He had suffered mutilation and death rather than to abjure His G-d, the G-d of Israel, withstanding the pressures and threats of the Bishop, his erstwhile friend. I had always felt a kinship with the martyrs of millennial Jewish history, a kinship that has blossomed into pride and great admiration, the same admiration I bore for my father and millions of other Jews in our sanguineous history. Yesterday, as the choir and cantor recited that prayer, I felt more of that pride.
Little has changed in the synagogue of my childhood. The old walls bore the same paintings. Some were peeling off. The Ark had a new curtain and the people have changed. My father’s seat was now occupied by a young man who held a small baby in his arms. Watching them during prayer was a lively refreshing and reassuring reminder that the Spirit of determination, survival and defiance has never left that place.I was happy, I felt blessed and I was grateful.