Memories of services conjure up interminable hours squirming inside stuffy synagogues, staring into faces that could all have been relatives, whose familiarity was supposed to instill a safe sense of belonging. At a very young age I became a pro at prayer. I knew all the chants by heart, having learned to read in tiny Biblical script. By the time I was ten I could sing Aramaic chants to the dead with my eyes closed, rocking to the rhythms of centuries of suffering. From kindergarten to sixth grade I attended parochial school, yeshiva, at my father’s insistence, so I would know where I came from. In dark basements under the supervision of rabbis whose spittle ran down their chins, I studied the holy books. While my friends played kick ball or whatever after-school games kids played, I was ducking my head as the rabbinical teachers raised their arms in admonition of the blasphemous Midianites, the ignorant Philistines, the wretched Amelekites. I learned at an early age that I was chosen, though for what I wasn’t sure.
A decent enough student, I finished my homework on time. Being left-handed, I enjoyed writing Hebrew since the ink didn’t stain my arm as I moved the pen from right to left across the page. Like a seasoned old woman, I learned exactly when to nod in the daily prayer book, shutting my eyes in all the right places. Whenever the Almighty’s name was invoked, I bent and swayed like a puppet whose strings were high and out of reach.
Some of the traditions of my childhood left behind sweet memories – the Passover Seder and its promise of dinner in the formal dining room, a mausoleum the rest of the year. We gathered with out-of-town cousins and friends around a meal that my mother actually spent hours preparing. Platters piled high with sweet and sour meatballs, roasted chicken, maybe a brisket floating in a bed of carrots and onions, fresh – not frozen – asparagus, intertwined with sacramental dishes created not so much for taste but to remind us of our legacy of slavery and redemption.
For weeks before Passover, our family began the preparations necessary for the once-a-year transition to our historical time of remembrance. We made our annual foray into the recessed cabinet behind the sofa that must have been designed for the express purpose of hiding things. Dad would pull on one side, my sister and I the other, while Mom, in the middle of the room, screamed warnings: Don’t scratch the floor! Don’t hit the lamp! Watch out for my knitting basket!
Somehow we managed to wrest the sofa away from the wall enough so that I, the skinniest, could shimmy behind and crack open the cabinet doors. My father, sister and I nudged the cabinet open inch by inch and at last exposed its magnificent contents – the Passover dishes. Slowly unfolding the plastic coverings, each of us worked to unearth once again the sugar bowl with its missing handle; a petrified sliver of beet stuck inside a soup bowl; a matzo crumb sandwiched between two saucers, dissolved to dust. We counted thirteen dinner plates, nine soup bowls, a full set of sixteen saucers, but only eleven cups. All dishes carefully sorted and moved to the dining room table, together we prepared for another year of memories, laughing, reminiscing, and teasing Mom who loved being teased. Even Dad pitched in with his seldom seen brand of playfulness.
So how did I manage, in one small life, to upend five thousand years of ancestral roots? It may have been that ugly word – goyim – that I heard spoken so often – the generic insult that referred to everyone who wasn’t us. The word wasn’t spoken, it was spat: The goyim did this to us; what a goyishe thing to do. Never too young to be told Holocaust stories, I retreated into dark corners, pretending not to hear the details of my parents’ friends’ horrific journeys. I heard every word. On the coffee table, heavy books displayed pictures of skeletal bodies; strange words like Juden and Kristallnacht on their covers, searing fear into a brain too young to make sense of it all.
I looked away. I ran into my room, buried myself in Little Lulu and Archie comics, Nancy Drew mysteries, goyim all, who invited me in and made me feel safe.
Neither of my sons married Jewish women. My grandchildren, technically not Jewish because their mothers are not, have only faint connections, if any, to their Semitic heritage. In two short generations, the thick stew of history I was fed quickly dissolved into a translucent broth.
And here it is, another Yom Kippur, and again I do not bow my head or bend my knee. The ancient melodies still rush through me, like the blood in my veins, but the haunting questions persist. Why do I punish myself year after year? Why can’t I let these holy days pass without an accompanying surge of sadness?
I inhale the crisp smells of autumn, bow my head in the warmth, and welcome the magical force that allows me to put pen to paper. I imagine myself a scribe composing a prayer, asking to be made whole.