First published in the Sept. 10 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
I spent the Jewish High Holidays last year in Dearborn, Michigan.
I don’t have family in Michigan nor do I know anyone in Dearborn. I don’t even remember the name of the synagogue.
I remember going to YouTube and finding a service that felt comfortable.
Many people last year Zoomed their services — and some are doing so again this year. What I remember and liked most about last year’s service was that the melodies brought back memories of the way they were sung in the synagogue I attended while I was growing up. That — in turn — brought back memories of family and friends I have shared the Jewish High Holidays with in the past.
The Jewish High Holidays began with Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year — which this year began Monday evening; the year is now 5782. The Jewish calendar is a lunar one so days begin at sundown. Some people celebrate one day. Others celebrate two days.
Rosh Hashanah begin the “Days of Awe” or the “10 Days of Repentance” — which close with the celebration of Yom Kippur, which begins next Thursday evening.
The High Holidays are traditionally a mix of family and friends enjoying each other’s company, reflections and penitence on sins against both God and other people, and prayers to remember those who have died.
Mix that in with a lot of memories and you have the Jewish High Holidays.
Last year, COVID-19 kept most families from getting together for a traditional new year’s dinner, where menus vary from house to house. Our dinner might consist of brisket of beef, noodle pudding (called kugel), a loaf of egg bread called challah, apple dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet year and a honey cake for dessert.
This year, it might be the vaccine that keeps families apart.
I have a doctor who every year makes holiday dinner. This year, she told me that everyone she invited must be vaccinated. She told me some of her patients have reported that a husband might be vaccinated, and the wife might not want to get a shot.
There is also the question of masks. “No masks,” said my doctor, “no invite.”
I told her that this year it was going to be in the ’90s on Rosh Hashanah and she told me, “I don’t care. I’ve got soup on the menu, and we’re going to have soup.”
Yom Kippur is a fasting holiday — from sundown to sundown; no food and no water are ingested with the exception being for medical reasons. In my family, it was my dad who said when we were going to “break the fast.” (He’s still fasting at age 95.)
Every family has their own way getting back to the Yom Kippur dinner table. My grandmother had a tradition in her family where she put jam in a glass of seltzer water. What’s a holiday without a family tradition at least on one side of the family?
My father and mother taught me that you should stay home from school or work not only to go to temple, but also to show respect for the religion and the holiday.
I think what brought this ethic into the national consciousness: it was when Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax — who is Jewish — skipped his start in the 1965 World Series because it fell during Yom Kippur.
“Koufax was famous for his pitching, but the most famous moment of his career may have been the day he did not pitch,” said Mark Langill, the Dodgers team historian. “It put him on a whole new stratosphere.”
It was the absence heard in synagogues and temples around the country. Rabbis loved it — and they didn’t even have to be Dodgers fans. I was growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, and can remember my rabbi saying, “If Sandy Koufax can take the day off, you can, too.”
Langill, who lives in South Pasadena, had a great anecdote about that day. Don Drysdale started the first game Instead of Koufax and was knocked out in the third inning of the game, which the Dodgers lost.
“Don’t you wish I was Jewish?” Langill recalled as the line from Drysdale when Dodgers Manager Walt Alston came out to relieve him.
Koufax pitched and lost the next day, but pitched and won the championship on two days’ rest.
Some people can’t take the day off. Families now split by children with different religions may end some traditions and Zoom has become a way for other families to keep together during the pandemic. Various branches of Judaism might worship in different ways, and if I Zoom in at different temples, I might hear different versions of the same chant, or different versions of the same service.
The days that start on Rosh Hashana and end on Yom Kippur are called the “10 Days of Repentance” in which you are supposed to (notice I said “supposed to”) apologize both for sins committed against God and for sins against other people. Those sins can range from gossiping to committing physical harm against another person.
The music of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is some of the most beautiful, haunting and memorable parts of my Jewish life. The prayer “Kol Nidre” is sung at the start of the evening service. The composer Max Bruch put the chant into a classical format, and it is often played on the cello.
“Avinu Malkeinu” is a memorable part of the Rosh Hashanah service. If you can, go to YouTube and listen to Barbra Streisand’s version. The cantor sings the prayer “Hineni” — meaning “here I am” — on Rosh Hashanah. My boyhood memory is of the cantor moving down among the congregation as he worked his way toward the stage.
There is a portion of the Yom Kippur service called “Yitzkor,” the remembrance prayers to recall those who have died. You light a candle which burns throughout the holiday in their memory.
Both the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services include the blowing of a shofar — a ram’s horn. I’ve been to many services where the person who blows the horn holds that final note until his face is red, and the audience is muttering, “How long can he hold that note?”
A rabbi from Chabad, a Jewish movement with a synagogue in Pasadena, was told that I lived in South Pasadena. He came over with an apple and a honey cake cupcake. He told me that Chabad hoped to open a temple in South Pasadena later this year and then — right on my front porch — he blew the shofar for me. I was impressed by his thoughtfulness, and he was impressed that I could remember the instructions given before each blast. The dog was not so impressed — staring wide-eyed behind me and probably wondering what was making that loud noise.
When the shofar blows at the end of Yom Kippur, in the Jewish tradition, God closes the Book of Life that is opened at Rosh Hashanah and it is written and sealed who will live and who will die during the next year. But, the prayer adds: “repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.”
May everyone, Jewish or not, be inscribed in the Book of Life.
L’Shana Tovah — a good year to all.