Friday, October 11, 2013

Past a Fearful Gate: After the Jewish High Holidays

I was dreading the Jewish High Holidays, especially YomKippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, last month. And it was painful at times. Yet it turned out to be bearable and even a little calming in the end. 

On the New Year in synagogue, I took the rabbi’s advice to just let the service wash over me. That helped when we came to the prayer that thanks God for helping us to reach this season. Normally, I appreciate the Shehechianu, but nothing is normal now. I can catalog little things to be grateful for this year but they are still too outweighed by loss to celebrate. So instead of singing, I listened to the wall of sound that rose around me. I felt strangely buoyed by other voices that would carry the tune for us. Good friends sitting nearby said they had our back. People we barely knew came up to wish us, with special emphasis, a good year.

On Yom Kippur, we were lucky to have our older son B visiting as a hedge against the intensity of the day. Surprisingly, I wasn’t overcome at the sight of Noah’s new memorial plaque in the synagogue, though ordering it and telling my mother-in-law about it had left me speechless. My husband, however, was overcome to be standing in synagogue as a family of three instead of four. He turned to me at one point in the service, looking stricken, and said he was about to cry. I thought he would walk out and take some time alone, not wanting to appear vulnerable in public. When he started sobbing and shaking, I hugged him hard and pulled his prayer shawl over his head for privacy, then ducked under the tent of it to cry along with him. Then our older son was embracing us and crying, too. It happened again during the Yizkor memorial service. The three of us clung to each other and wept while the rabbi read the names of those who had died in the past year, and in front of us, even my cheerful mother-in-law was in tears. It was OK to cry; we were in a sanctuary. Later, in the darkening space as candles were lit to mark the end of the Sabbath, we sang, swaying arm-in-arm with a whole row of relatives. We smiled to see our son B on the altar join in a long, final blast on the shofar (ram’s horn), like he did when he was ten. 

I felt we had passed through another fearful gate on the mourner’s path and come out battered but safe.  

I have always loved the harvest holiday of Sukkot, which follows Yom Kippur. For years, our family built the traditional three-sided hut in our backyard, decked its top with palm fronds, and festooned it with hanging fruit, greenery, and chains of paper and popcorn. When our boys were little, they, their friends and our dog ran endlessly around the sukkah while the adults ate and drank inside it by candlelight. Now, I hoped someone would invite us to their sukkah before the holiday was over. Amazingly, someone did, and I felt a moment of peace lingering after dinner with friends under the harvest moon. I only wish Noah could have found the peace he needed to persevere and that we could have, as the song says, “spread a sukkah of peace” over him.

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