My first memory of being moved by Judaism was not sitting in the upstairs gallery with my grandmother and the other lipsticked, perfumed ladies in their hats and good suits, though it is one of my earliest memories.
Rather, I remember standing close to my grandfather as he davened among the men. He held his tallit over his head and mine like a shelter one Yom Kippur. Bowing, bending, chanting over open prayer book, sending a rising, resonant hum to Heaven, he created what I would many years later come to know as “sacred space.” I was four or five years old. I remember the reverence of the moment as clearly as I remember the musty smell of the prayerbooks and the strength of my grandfather’s voice, praying with all the sincerity of a heart incapable of questioning the power of a prayer sincerely offered. We were aligned in our private space, yet we were not alone. Under this chuppah I wed Judaism.
No one had to tell me this was absolutely serious, sacred time. I learned it well that day, and I have never forgotten it. I have spent a good deal of my life searching for it and trying to re-create it. I have expanded my search to include nature and the power spots of the planet, where human and divine energies are known to collide and commingle.
These services were not held in the Orthodox shul in downtown New Brunswick, N.J. we regularly attended. That synagogue was the creation of the Russian-Hungarian village that immigrated more or less together at the turn of the 20th century.
No, the particular Yom Kippur services that marked me were held in a hotel, down the shore, in that mellow September light that comes when the seaside is deserted, and you smell the salt tang of the air and hear the breakers as you walk along the empty boardwalk. Earlier in the summer, I had sat on a bench overlooking the ocean with my grandfather, watching dolphins swoop in and out of the waves, like the fairytale creatures they were. Strange to think he was younger then than I am now.
And it probably wasn’t too long after the holidays that I was spending the afternoon at my grandparents house and I learned something else from my grandfather. My grandparents were baby-sitting me and my brother as my parents had gone to New York to see a Broadway show. The light was dim, late afternoon. My grandfather brought out a small, carved wooden box and opened it. He removed a letter covered with handwritten, blue-inked Hebrew script.
“This is the last letter I received from my father,” he told me. “The letter he sent me before the Nazis took him away. He was 77.” Strangely, he did not have to explain to me who the Nazis were. Somehow, by age five, I knew all about Hitler and the Nazis, but I have no idea how I learned this. He handed me the letter and I turned it over, trying to make sense of it. His father would have been my great-grandfather, someone forever missing from my life. By the time he took it from me, folded it and replaced it in the box, it was dark. My grandmother came into the room and put on the lights. Then we had tea. I have no idea what became of the letter. We never spoke of it again.
The shelter of the tallit and the letter from the Holocaust; the beauty, security and meaning of tradition, and the unspoken terror that my life might be sacrificed at any time because of my regard for these precious treasures. These are the yin and yang of my Jewishness.
(This essay appeared originally in the June/July, 2010 issue of the New Mexico Jewish Link, p. 12)