They were small, felt, ringed in blue. We wore them to meals, to all of them, and of course, to services on Fridays and Saturdays. You were given two at the start. If you lost them, they were a few dollars to replace. Of course, they were yarmulkes, even though we never called them that, choosing, instead, to call them beanies. To have called them yarmulkes, I suppose, would have been to place them in a more strict religious context, that, as boys, we may have shirked from. Or found uncool. It’s hard to remember now. This was my summer camp near Cape Cod, a tiny, wooded outpost flanked by a fresh water lake, a dozen creaky, wooden bunks.
Even as a young kid, I recognized the chapel as something beautiful. To get there you had to walk along the water. There was a fence that separated the field from the lake. We’d go in what was supposed to be our best clothing. But we were young, and we were boys, and inevitably, we were filthy. I remember having to go down a slope, although this might be inaccurate. It’s been fifteen years since I was there last, and the photographs I’ve found on the web don’t do justice to my memories. There were three sections of benches arranged in a half-circle. Plain wooden benches like the sort you’d see at a softball field. And there was a bimah, a makeshift pulpit. Behind this was the water. There were high trees surrounding us, white pine, black gum, red spruce. The chapel, I realize now, was nothing but a landscaped clearing. There was another summer camp along the lake, a YMCA camp. And there were a few houses dotting the shore. One of them had an airplane docked out front, its landing gear retrofitted for the water, and occasionally, during services, if you were lucky, you’d see the pilot take off, or land, and then, a few moments later, you’d see the water lap up against the shore – small, insistent waves.
Most of us were secular, if not entirely unobservant in our usual lives, and these services amounted to the totality of our religious experiences. One summer, a boy had his bar mitzvah there, all of his friends pitching in together to make it happen. I remember this particular service more than the others. These were small gestures: the beanies, the prayers we sung before our meals, the imposed solemnity of our weekly walk to the chapel. I remember worrying that my yarmulke would blow off in the middle of a service, some lake-born gust of wind taking it and spilling it somewhere. This was a fear one doesn’t suffer in synagogue.
Lately I’ve been thinking about that chapel, about how lovely it was to sit out there in the woods, with the birds out overhead, and that airplane dropping slowly onto the water. There was no better place to pray quietly, to find peace, to feel gratitude at the easy beauty we had around us. I find myself wishing I could back there now, even though, I’m fairly sure I’ve long lost those felt beanies. Although I suppose, for a few dollars, I could get another.
I’ve been going to synagogue every morning this week, which is rare for me. I used to skip synagogue all the time because I slept too late, and then it was because my kids were up too early. I never got to see them any other time because of this full-time-job thing (you know, the one that enables me to write stuff like this, and for you to read it)…so mornings seemed like the perfect opportunity to do that, and let my wife sleep late (bonus points).
But this week I’ve been getting into the swing of it. Putting aside my religious snarkiness, and telling myself that I’ve got a four-day weekend for Rosh Hashanah, and I’ll spend plenty of time with the offspring then. Also–I’ll say this quietly, because I really don’t want to jinx it–the kids have been sleeping later.
Also, services have been keeping me on my toes. It’s not just the normal routine of praying and saying amen. There are different things you do every day. All week, before services we’ve been saying selichot, this really intense 15-minute-long prayer where you recount all the bad stuff you’ve done this year and then ask G-d to forget about it. And then tachanun, which is another confessional sort of thing, not to be confused with Catholic confession, because when we take account of our slip-ups, we do it directly to G-d. And then the shofar blasts at the end of services, which are supposed to literally scare the living sin out of you.
And then, this morning, hataras nedarim.
If you’re saying what?, rest assured, dear friends, so did I. We all gathered round a makeshift rabbinical court — that would be three of the old dudes at the synagogue, because according to Jewish law, basically anyone can be a judge (well, sorta) — and we all recited this liturgical thing that listed all the oaths and promises we may have inadvertently made, and asked them to nullify those things. I’d never done it before. Or maybe I just don’t remember? But now that I have, I sort of feel the infinity of infancy. Like I’ve sworn away all my oaths and all my sins, and now I can do anything. I just have to not think about taking a nap or checking my Google Reader stream.
I have this irrational idea in my head that, just because I wrote a book with Yom Kippur in the title, I’m some sort of authority on repentance. Whereas the truth is, I’m probably just an authority on how to mess up really badly, and on a grand scale. But that’s what the High Holidays are most fundamentally about, I think — coming face to face with the stuff you’ve done wrong, and trying to make it better. And then, being able to do anything.
I am not a huge fan of the WTF Podcast by Marc Maron. I listen to it every once in a while, but it’s not one of those podcasts that I anxiously wait to be updated every week. But yesterday, out of necessity—none of my other podcasts were new—I listened to Maron’s latest podcast, which is a recording of a live show he did in Brooklyn. The show is…it’s outrageously good, with an emphasis on the outrageous. Maron opens with a short monologue about being dropped off at a hotel in Williamsburg Brooklyn. Surrounded by Hasids and directly across the street from the Sukkah Depot, he has a freakout. A Jew himself, being around Hasids creeps him out. He admits its problematic and possibly anti-Semitic, but it’s refreshingly honest. Though I found myself uncomfortable listening to this part, it was impossible not to recognize that that feeling—the feeling of being spooked by any serious display of religion—is a genuine one, and one that comes from (in this case) bad relations within the Jewish community, and the overall fear/distrust of the Other.
Later in the show Marc chats with an astounding number of guests, including Ira Glass, who is hilarious, and a comic and writer who recently left her observant Mormon life. Elna Baker talks about the weirdness of transitioning from being religious to not being religious. That in-between state where you haven’t quite been able to leave, but your heart is not in it at all. It’s pretty amazing. And then more comics come on and they talk about Jewish summer camp, pooping, being an alcoholic, and many other serious/hilarious things.
I don’t think it was the intention of the show to be be particularly about religion, and being uncomfortable with religion, but in the end it’s largely about that, and it’s genius. At this time of year, when we’re about to spend a lot of time in services, and probably for some of that time we’ll be thinking, “Wow, I hate this” it’s nice to hear some people being painfully honest about the way religion ties them in knots. You can subscribe to the WTF podcast on iTunes, or just head over to the WTFpod website and listen to it there.
At a certain point in the process, I had to do the cutting. Not the small cutting, the excising of some misplaced lines, the usual reshuffling that revision turns into at the end, everything somehow feeling more surgical than therapeutic. But I had to really cut. To kill some stories. To take them out, shelve them, end them. This is what I did, in the most unsentimental of ways – stories that I’d suffered over for months at a time, pulled from the manuscript, put into the drawer. There were fourteen stories. Then there were ten. For a few weeks there were nine. Now the book exists in its final form, and there are seven stories, all handsomely put together and bound and out there for anyone to read. But what about the others, the stories that didn’t make it?
Short story collections are, at their best, a crystallized instance of a writer’s preoccupations. In most cases the medium doesn’t allow for the concentrated energy a novel does, or for the lingering, careful introspection. At their best, a certain incidental beauty emerges, a glancing touch of something lovely, or wise. I wrote the bulk of my book in Iowa City, a wonderful town with a small Jewish community, but where, after a few months, I found the simple task of buying candles for a menorah nearly impossible. The experience stuck with me. I’d been working on a book about a piano player. I shelved it. Slowly, the stories began to touch one another, their common threads signaling, at first, a deepening fascination about religious identity. My characters, as they emerged, were secular Jews whose notion of their identity was brittle and uninformed. Why did I want those candles so badly, when I barely celebrated any other holidays? At the end of one of these stories, a character whose father is dying announces that he has no idea what it means to be Jewish. This, it seemed to me, was what my book was about. Or what it should be about. But then, so quickly, things changed. Other threads emerged: struggling families, adulterous lovers, estranged brothers. My preoccupations were shifting.
There is a distance, often, that takes root between what a writer wants to write about, and what a writer actually writes about. Outlines become useless, taunting things. A collection of stories becomes bound by ideas the writer is not entirely away of. Slowly, this began to happen to me. The woman who eventually became my editor helped me realize that the characters I’d been writing weren’t all religious, but they were all Jews. If nothing else, this was the thread.
John Cheever’s advice on putting together a story collection was to put the best story up front, the next best story last, and then arrange everything else in the middle. I heard this a few weeks after my book had been acquired for publication, an occassion that to me felt like my own, private Hanukkah miracle: my book of stories would go out into the world! But there was a whole separate book I’d shelved. In it, there is a story about a brother whose twin is dying. A story about a family whose adopted son is a painting prodigy. There is a story about a boxer who falls in love with his opponent. I’m this book’s only reader now. It’s a funny thing to see: my slight obsessions rising up and falling away. My plans for a perfectly round collection loosening. This book doesn’t have a handsome cover, or a title, or really, to be honest, any future. But it exists, if for no other reason, than to remind me of how my book got made – by cutting and cutting and cutting.
Photo by Nina Subin
I have a confession to make. I just took the MJL quiz about Jews and Sports and only got 7/10. I should be embarrassed about that, but the truth is, it’s a miracle that I got seven right. And I won’t even tell you how many I got right the first time I took the Thinkers and Thought quiz, I’ll just say it was not a high number.
Our quizzes are an awesome way to quickly find out just how much you know about any one subject, and brush up on some basics at the same time. The awesome bonus? Every month we’re giving away an Amazon.com giftcard to the person who answers the most quiz questions correctly. If I won, I might have to buy Great Jews in Sports.
Register and start taking quizzes today, to win your own giftcard!
For me, the year has always begun in September. I grew up near Boston, and part of this feeling, surely, is that the season changes then, that summer ends and school begins, that in the stores suddenly there are reminders of what’s to come: Halloween masks, potted burgundy chrysanthemums, pumpkins for sale in bins at the farm stands. Of course, September, in most cases, marks the beginning of the High Holidays. It falls late this year, the bulk of the Days of Awe spilling over into October. As I write this, we’re half a month away, and in New England, there is still the residual film of summer hanging over everything. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are, perhaps, the most benevolent of all our holidays, a time devoted, in part, to an introspective critique of our sins and misgivings, our failings, the grievances we carry. I took the title of my collection of short stories, The Book of Life, from the part of the High Holiday liturgy which has been my favorite since I was young: On Rosh Hashanah It is Written, On Yom Kippur It is Sealed. The stories in my book are about family – about the enduring struggle between father’s and their sons, about the difficulties between brothers. But in a large part, the stories are about the sins and errors we commit against those we love.
Growing up, these were the only services we attended. We weren’t alone. The annex of our synagogue was opened to accommodate those, like us, who still found it necessary to attend. This is the story of so much of the Reform experience this last half-century, a loosening of the traditions, a slackening, a burgeoning secular identity. But it has never been a puzzle to me why these holidays remain so important. There is a solemnity, and a sober holiness to the sight of the bereaved standing among their neighbors to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. There is the insistence of the Yahrzeit candle, and the sweet symbolism of apples and honey. And there is a certain beauty to the idea that transgressions suffered in private can be absolved in public.
But perhaps the most beautiful of the High Holiday traditions is the one least known by Reform Jews, and certainly, the one least practiced. In Hebrew, tashlikh means casting off. The ritual is a simple one: you take pieces of bread, throw them into the river as if you were feeding ducks, and watch them all float downstream. To do this is to symbolically cast away your sins, to slough off a year’s misdeeds, to start the new year fresh. This comes from the prophet Micah:
He does not retain His anger forever,
Because He delights in unchanging love.
He will again have compassion on us;
He will tread our iniquities underfoot.
Yes, You will cast all our sins
Into the depths of the sea.
I was in my late twenties the first time I heard of this. I was living in Iowa City, a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I’d moved to the Midwest from Brooklyn, and I had just begun to write the stories that would make up my first book. They were, without fail, about Jewish men struggling to connect to their faith, men struggling to free themselves from the guilt of their transgressions. There is something wonderful about the idea of casting off our sins, washing away a year’s worth of errors. During Yom Kippur, the action is a collective one. We repent aloud for sins, even if we haven’t committed them. One person’s sin is the congregation’s sin. By the time I went down to the Iowa River with a few pieces of bread stuffed into my pockets, it’d been a long while since I’d been to synagogue to celebrate the High Holidays. Ten years. Probably more. But here, on the river, in the grass, a thousand miles from home, I felt compelled to begin to reconnect, to begin anew, to cast off.
One of my family’s traditions has always been to make sure to invite new people to our holiday meals every year. Just as there are many lonely people around the time of Thanksgiving and New Years, there are many lonely Jewish people around the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The High Holidays come in the autumn, just after many people have moved to a new place for school or a job. Secular New Year, on Jan 1, is mostly artificial. There is not much that really starts anew every January 1st, but many things begin in the fall, around the time of Rosh Hashanah. And these new beginnings can be difficult, intimidating, trying, and they can make us lonely, especially when we’re away from our closest family and friends.
Think of Hagar, Abraham’s second wife, who we read about in the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Sent away from her home, she is adrift in the desert, with only her thirsty child. She is on the brink of death, and is only saved by a miracle. There are people like Hagar in your community—perhaps they aren’t homeless (though they might be) but they are adrift and lonely. Rosh Hashanah is a great time to reach out to new people, make a connection, and offer them a place at your holiday table. Not only is a it a great way to help someone, but it means you’ll be starting the Jewish year with a huge mitzvah already chalked under your name. What could be better?
This Saturday night, September 25, 2011, a lot of Jews might be getting a lot less sleep than usual.
In my head, the midnight Selichot service is mostly known as the dividing point between normal prayers and pre-Rosh Hashanah prayers. It’s the first time when you actually start to say the al-hets — the set of lines that starts “for the sin which we’ve committed before you by ________ and for the sin which we’ve committed before you by ________.” It’s one of those intense, will-we-live-or-will-we-die prayers, a little bit impassioned and a little bit scary.
And, as I mentioned, most synagogues hold this service between midnight and 1:00 A.M.
In the past this wasn’t a problem. In fact, I have distinct memories of stopping at synagogue on the way home from a Saturday night out. (On one occasion, it was an almost-compromising-situation that I slipped out of. Which was, to be sure, a great inspiration for asking forgiveness from G-d that year.) This year, however, the main complication is not that my Saturday night would be interrupted, but that I’ll still be awake. Having kids will do that to you. Having kids who get up at 6:30 on a good day will really do that to you.
But this, I think, is what religion’s supposed to be. Not something that makes us comfortable in our lives, but that specifically makes us uncomfortable with our lives — to remind us that there’s a greater order to the world than our petty little routines of waking up and going to sleep at the same time every night.
And then, of course, waking up a mere few hours after that and remembering the other greatest things in the world.
Selichot starts this Saturday night at midnight! Learn more about the service on MJL, and be on the lookout for Matthue sleepwalking like a zombie through your local synagogue.
Earlier this week, Lucette Lagnado wrote about an arrogant revolution and about mourning her Arab Spring. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.
This past weekend I was lost — and found — in Brooklyn.
My Sunday began with an appearance on a panel about the Arab Spring at the chic, hipsterish Brooklyn Book Festival. It was an animated discussion, and my fellow panel-members were amiable, but I felt lonely, very much in the minority as I spoke out against the brutal attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. The attempted storming of the embassy last week was a turning point as far as I was concerned, a time to start asking tough questions about the revolution and whether it had gone seriously off-track, to demand to know what happened to the early goals of democracy and peace on Tahrir Square.
The consensus, though, was that revolutions took time to play out – one member suggested 100 years.
And I thought there was such a desperate need for change – immediate reforms.
One thoughtful panel member from Cairo did suggest that many Egyptians were shocked by the attack, that it was unexpected; I was heartened to hear at least that there was a sense of shame about it in Egypt.
I walked out feeling oddly blue, melancholy. Here I was in Brooklyn, where I grew up, and yet I was struck by that feeling of not belonging that returns to haunt me every once in a while.
As I wandered the streets of Brooklyn Heights with its multi-million dollar mansions and elegant residents, and then of nearby Park Slope which is, if possible, looking even sleeker these days, I realized that this fashionable Brooklyn had nothing to do with the Brooklyn of my childhood, the borough where my family and I had once sought refuge, where we had found a haven among equally impoverished refugees from the Levant.
I also knew the only possible way to cope with my funk was to go immediately to that Brooklyn.
* * * *
I have always thought it was odd that with this Brooklyn renaissance, the fact that some of the borough’s most God forsaken areas have become de rigueur, my little enclave of Bensonhurst has remained decidedly un-chic.
I return every few months and find it to be pretty much the same as it was in my childhood – staid and lacking in the coolness factor.
Some more immigrant groups have moved in, to be sure, I see a lot of Russians, and even some Hassids – but not a single hipster. Not one.
Nor any of the young professional families that favor organic food co-ops.
No, those quiet somewhat dreary blocks are pretty much the way they were when I was a kid, longing to escape and wishing there was more excitement.
My trips to Bensonhurst always have a ritual quality to them, like a religious pilgrimage. I must go to this block, I tell myself, I must pay my respects to that building.
The ritual includes taking my (very obliging) husband to key markers of my childhood and pointing them out all over again.
“This was our first apartment in America,” I’ll say, “This was where Key Food, my first American supermarket was situated.”
The high point of all such trips is a visit to 67th street, the block of the Magen David Synagogue (“The Shield of David” in my book), once the center of Syrian Jewish life in New York, and its frail little neighbor, the building that housed my shul.
Magen David is still there, but it is a mortuary now. I have been told there are occasional services, possibly even for the high holidays, but it is central function is clear, and has been clear for years – it is where the community comes to honor its dead.
No matter how many times I hear that, it still shocks me, still makes me sad. As for the little annex, the one that I refer to as the Shield of Young David in my memoir, it has gone through a thousand incarnations since it was sold in the 1970s. These days, it appears to be a religious school.
On this Sunday afternoon, I make a discovery that actually helps me combat my Brooklyn Heights blues. There in the front of the building of my old shul are children – young Orthodox children scampering about, running around the courtyard.
“They are playing in the courtyard, the way you did as a child,” my husband points out.
It has taken years, decades, yet I realize that against the odds, hope has come back to this small corner of Brooklyn that continues to haunt my imagination as nowhere else on earth.
Lucette Lagnado’s most recent book, The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, is now available. Lucette won the 2008 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World.
For someone as book-addicted as I am, choosing a High Holidays prayerbook is a big commitment, not unlike asking someone to the junior prom. Like a prom, you’re going to get dressed up really swanky beforehand, and like the prom, tickets will probably set you back a few hundred dollars. Unlike prom, however, you’re putting yourself before a divine tribunal that decides whether you live or die, and where you’re never quite sure you’re going to make it out of there alive. Okay, maybe that’s what my prom was like — but I was a nervous type, and my date ended up making secret weapons for the government.
So: How to choose the appropriate prayerbook to shuttle you into this mode of thinking? I was impressed enough with the Koren Siddur, with its commentary by Rabbi/Dr./British Lord Jonathan Sacks, to check out their collection of Tisha B’Av prayers. And, though it’s weird that that particular volume, meant for a minor Jewish holiday that most people don’t really know what it’s about, was released before the Rosh Hashanah Machzor, it makes sense in a way — the Tisha B’Av Kinot was an appetizer before this, the main course.*
Here’s the deal: If you’re going to Rosh Hashanah services, and you’re planning on staying the entire time, they’re going to last a while. (Our synagogue’s services frequently go till 2:00 or so. Even the early-retreat people don’t usually run out until noon or so, leaving two or three hours ) You want something that’s meaty, with a lot of commentary (well, interesting commentary). But you also want to be able to dip into and out of the text without paying too much attention. (Hey, you’re in services. Your mind wanders. It’s okay.)
One of the nice things about this machzor is the layout of the text. It’s broken up line by line, not in paragraphs, but like poems. It’s easy to switch back and forth between English and Hebrew, if that’s your thing, or listening to the Hebrew and following along in English. The translation is meaningful, if it sometimes falls flat — there’s just so much “He who lives in the shelter of the Most High” we can read before it all starts to blur together.
That’s where the commentary comes in. Those little guides at the bottom of the page (sometimes a line or two, sometimes a short essay) are Sacks’s strong suit — no one in the contemporary Jewish world comes close to Sacks in bare terms of taking these weird, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes un-understandable prayer verses and making them hit home. Drawing from history, his own insights, and sources from left-wing and right-wing, classical and new, Sacks gives us ways to connect with the text and re-invigorate it…even when we’re not really following along. Which is, if you think about it, kind of the ideal rabbi to have in your pocket.
* — Plus, the advent of modern prayer only came when the Temple was destroyed, and each of us were tasked to become a Temple of our own.