The High Holy Days and childhood nostalgia

The liturgy of the synagogue resonates with me, and I enjoy singing along with whoever is leading the service, as I grew up with a father who took me every Friday night and Shabbat to shul.

 Jewish women pray outside a synagogue during a forgivness tour (Selichot) (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
Jewish women pray outside a synagogue during a forgivness tour (Selichot)
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

How many of us think about why we are as we are, but this is precisely what I found myself doing during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Normally I am a regular shul-goer, but since corona – with its inevitable restrictions – there were too many occasions when I just did not feel like going. Our shul has a dynamic chairperson who has done her very best to encourage shul participation despite the ghastly pandemic that refuses to end. Congregants are rightly expected to wear masks for indoor prayer, and the service is curtailed. Yet much of what I particularly enjoy is removed.

One example is the fast reading – in place of singing – of the prayer for the State of Israel, Avinu Shebeshamayim, a stirring prayer reminding us of how favored we are to have returned to the land of our fathers. We pray that God will bless Israel; strengthen the hand of those who defend us, and encourage our brethren, wherever they reside, to return home. It is a melodious beautiful prayer that we should sing together, for by so doing – as I have discovered – we become part of the prayer itself.

The liturgy of the synagogue resonates with me, and I enjoy singing along with whoever is leading the service, but mask-wearing is not exactly conducive to the singing that brings me close to my Judaism.

Perhaps my love of the liturgy is not strange, as I grew up with a father who took me every Friday night and Shabbat to shul, where I would happily sing along with the hazan and the choir.

 IT WAS a great pleasure sitting with Zayde, often turning the handle of his gramophone. (Illustrative) (credit: Clem Onojeghuo/Unsplash) IT WAS a great pleasure sitting with Zayde, often turning the handle of his gramophone. (Illustrative) (credit: Clem Onojeghuo/Unsplash)

My Booba and Zayde (grandmother and grandfather) lived close by. Zayde originated from Bialystok, and blessed with a strong and melodious voice, he often led the service at the Biala Rabbi’s shteibel. Sometimes I would go with Zayde to his shteibel.

My Booba was considered to be the first “chairwoman” in the family, because she would sit on a chair in the hallway, in between two adjoining rooms – one that served the men, the other the women – with a solid wall that divided the two. Booba’s role was to watch when the men stood, and then to tell the women – in Yiddish – to do likewise.

Zayde enjoyed hazanut, or cantorial music, and collected His Master’s Voice recordings of famous cantors such as Moshe Koussevitzky and Yoselle Rosenblatt. It was always a great pleasure sitting with Zayde – often turning the handle of his gramophone – as we listened together to his amazing collection of 78 RPM records of these great cantors. It was here that I began to appreciate the liturgy associated with the various festivals with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at the helm.

Avinu Malkenu sung by Rosenblatt resonated profoundly with me as a child, as did Koussevitzky’s Hineni prayer. Hineni is the prayer sung by the one leading the service just prior to the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Mussaf. The cantor becomes the shaliach asking the Almighty to help him be worthy of being the representative of the congregation in seeking God’s favorable acceptance of its prayers.

Until today, Hineni is a prayer that stirs within me profound spiritual feelings, especially when I hear it sung by one who is able to transmit his own feelings as he prays.

Such was the case, prior to our aliyah, in London’s Mill Hill. On the High Holy Days, one Victor Tunkel – a barrister and law lecturer by profession – would lead the service. His quiet yet impassioned interpretation of Hineni conveyed the emotional responsibility he felt as he pleaded with the Almighty on our behalf. It came as no surprise to learn that Tunkel was a major figure in the field of Jewish liturgical music, who as a young boy sang in London’s Hendon Synagogue choir with the great Cantor David Koussevitzky, Moshe’s brother.

I didn’t go to shul this Rosh Hashanah, but I did choose – before the Holy Days and in between – to seek out YouTube renderings of the liturgy I grew up with, including Rosenblatt’s rendering of V’Kol Ma’aminim, a prayer in poetic language expressing a declaration in our faith. Rosenblatt’s interpretation touches me deeply.

My father, originating from Warsaw, gave me a love of the synagogue service, and brought me up on a menu of Yiddish songs, many of which were sung by the pioneers coming from Poland and Russia to Palestine in order to build a state. Sadly, he never made it to the Israel he loved, but how fortunate am I that he was my father, able to instill in me the significance of a Jewish State even prior to its rebirth.

Back to the beginning on why we individuals are as we are.

In a previous life, I worked professionally for 30 years as a relationship counselor. During the training and years of working with those facing psychological challenges, it became clear how our childhood experiences contribute to who we are as adults. Often we hear of the negative repercussions, but today, as I thought about my own childhood, I appreciate the positivity that my Zayde and father gave me, specifically in relation to my Judaism and love of Israel. My one regret is that I never said thank you.

The hope is that my Zayde and father are looking down and will see how, because of them, I love being Jewish, and am privileged to be able to express it by living in the one Jewish State. 

The writer is chairperson of the Israel, Britain and Commonwealth Association. She is also public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes immigrant integration into Israeli society.