Monday, October 02, 2006

Yom Kippur

I know, I know, I said I wouldn't do this religion bit. But so much for promises. I have to tell this story.

The time between Rosh Ha Shana and Yom Kippur determine our fate, according to tradition. Yom Kippur, which was yesterday, sealed it with the fast.

Next week is Succos, a seven day holiday. So yeah, it might be hard to find me again at the office.

Anyway, I'm going to start this story with the Saturday BEFORE Yom Kippur, just a few days ago.

Theoretically, by the time we get to Yom Kippur we're supposed to have at least considered changing to become better people. The entire ten days, including Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is a pretty intense time. We're supposed to look back at our deeds and look forward to changing them.

That's always pretty intense if you ask me, looking back, looking forward.
It’s why therapists tell people to stay in the moment to be okay and manage their emotions. Usually that works. Not much is happening IN the moment.

Anyway, the Shabbas between R"H and Y"K is intense. Since it's the first Sabbath of the year we’re supposed to make it especially good, not speak badly about anyone else, work on our relationships, fool G-d into thinking we’re worth saving. (I could have it wrong, but that’s been my interpretation.) It's a little deeper than the usual eat, drink, and be merry, oh, and catch-up-on-a-week's-worth-of-sleep-if-you-can, Shabbas.

So I came to shul, the synagogue, a little earlier than usual last Saturday. Okay, very early, for me. I spotted someone new, a lady probably around 79-85 years old. She was sitting right in front of me. Let’s call her Tela.

She turned to me and asked me a question, maybe it was, Is this seat taken? I don’t know. I sort of wondered why she didn’t sit in the row with most of the other women her age who sit and pray, but also talk it up.

I said the seat had her name on it. That was the end of the conversation. She would occasionally kind of look back at me and smile and I did my best to smile, but it was one of those days when talking in shul was out of the question. Personally, I like those days.

Saturday passed, Sunday went by quickly, and soon we hit Yom Kippur.
On the High Holy Days we have assigned seats in shul. Different seats from our usual seats. I had requested to be in an area near my friends, most of whom have children or parents or in-laws sitting with them. I’m alone this year. They can put me anywhere.

I found my assigned seat, which was near my friends, but not next to any one of them. I was seated next Tela. She hadn’t been there on Rosh HaShana. Or maybe she was sitting someplace else and I hadn't noticed her.

Tela’s short and a little round. She wore a round black hat and a nice dark green silk suit. Her only jewelry consisted of a pretty gold watch and a thin gold bracelet on her left wrist, and the simple gold pendant with three small (but not too small) diamonds, that I’m sure her late husband gave her for an anniversary. She looked nice.

Tela coughed and sniffled and apologized for her allergies. (My nose had actually started up, too). No problem, I said, and introduced myself. What’s your name? She told me her name, which I couldn’t hear. Tela has a thick Yiddish accent and the congregation was a little loud with the singing at the time.

I asked: Are you new to this shul?

She said: Yes, mine husband passed five years ago. We leeved in Skokie and my son told me it would be good to sell the house, move into the condo not fah from he-ah. I could move by him in the suburbs but it’s too far a valk to his shul. So this is a short valk.

Me: His loss, our gain. Do you like it?

Tela (smiles): It’s okay.

We listen and sing along with the services for awhile. I’m listening to her because she is singing in her lovely, rounded, gutteral accent and I know how I sound. Her prayers sound more sincere.

Fela: Is your husband down dere?

The men are on a lower level, we women are in a balcony above them. We can see them. They can’t see us unless they look up. That’s the plan.

Me: No, he’s at the early minyan.(service). Have people been friendly here?

Tela (shy smile): Ferry nice.

Then, apologetically she says: I come from a different shul, you know. A traditional shul. You know what is a traditional shul?

Me: Sure. I grew up in Skokie. I went to Niles Township. I went to all the different shuls for Bar Mitzvahs.

Tela: Oh, they’re VERY conservative dere, right?

Me: Now they are I guess. (I smile. She smiles. Neither of us wants to say anything that would be remotely construed as negative.) I think it’s probably a fun shul, You know?

Tela: I tink so. This one here seems like a nice shul.

Me: We’re pretty laid back.

Tela: Not like (she names a different Orthodox shul in Skokie that maybe is more moneyed and the people show it).

Me: They’re nice too.

Tela: Of course.

We pray some more. She coughs and it’s kind of a bad cough, maybe not allergies. She turns to me and says, You know, it’s bad to be sick and old.

I nod.

It’s better to be old and rich.

We both smile at her punchline. Such Yiddish humor.

Now it’s time for people who still have living parents to leave the sanctuary. Those who have lost their parents will stay inside to say a special prayer, the Yizkor. I take off to talk to my friends.

First I stop to read Tela’s name off the seating chart outside the sanctuary. I see my friend Debbie.

Debbie (kind of laughing): So who’s your new friend?

Me: Tela _____. She’s very cute.

Debbie: Wait a minute. That name’s familiar. TANTE TELA?

Me: Maybe. How many Tela’s are there?

Debbie explains some connection with her family that I spaced out on and don't remember.

Me: We probably should take care of her. You know, socially, for awhile. She’s not too connected.

Other women join us and we're talking about the importance of getting babies to sleep at night. Eventually we go back into the sanctuary for the services. Before long it’s time for The Break. Most people take about an hour and a half to go home, nap, and quickly return for the last three hours of services. Most of Yom Kippur is spent standing in prayer. It’s exhausting.

Tela was a little late returning to services. She took a look in my prayer book for the place. She had a different prayer book, the one they used in her Traditional shul in Skokie. We both say a part of the service that lists a LOT of sins. She mumbles something under her breath in English (We pray in Hebrew).

Me: What did you say?

Tela: I said. Sins. We made a lot of sins. So many sins.

Me: Uh, huh.

Tela: And you know? Others. They make even more sins.

Me: Uh, huh.

Tela: You know dere vas a var in Israel on Yom Kippur.

Me: Der vas. (It’s hard not to slip into Yiddish accents with elderly people. G.D. tells me that when we get old we’ll all be speaking in Yiddish accents. It’s natural.)

Tela: I tink it was 1983.

Me: Maybe so. But we won. Even fasting, the Israeli’s won.

Tela: But we lost some.

Me: Ah.

Tela: I lost mine cousin.

Me: I’m so sorry. (pause). I’m so sorry. (pause.) I’m so sorry.

I don’t know why I said it three times.

Tela: You know I’m a concentration camp survivor. A Holocaust survivor. (She looks me deeply in the eyes.)

Me: I didn’t know. Which camp?

She said the name, I didn’t hear it, and didn’t want to interrupt her flow, so I nodded.

Tela: I lost mine parents, and mine sister(s). I don't know vhy I'm here. I don't know... vhy...I'm here.

I am unspeakably moved and tear up. I nod, gulp. We pray some more. I hear her say, Al tashlichaini. She repeats it. I close my eyes tight. It is a quote from Tehillim 51, Psalms, and in context with the rest of the verse means,

Don't cast me away from your presence, don't take your holy spirit from me.

We get to the end of the service and everyone is happy. The fast is over. We can go home and eat and drink. We’re all singing, Next Year in Jerusalem. I introduce Tela to my friend Chani, they exchange pleasantries. Chani seemed a little pensive throughout the service. I was sure she was thinking of her mom who had passed away just last year.

I turn to Tela and say, It should be a healthy year.

She says, Yes, a healthy year. And there should be peace in Israel.


Debbie turns to Tela and offers her a ride home. Tela declines. She looks sad behind her glasses. She has that look of low expectations, the look she gave me when I said, Had people been nice to her in the shul? I want to say it’s a survivor look, maturity mixed with age, mixed with independence. But I know better than to generalize about survivors. They’re not all like her.

You’ll tell me more, Tela, okay?

She didn’t answer. Maybe she didn't hear me.

I hope she stays with this shul. I truly hope we’re worthy.

Copyright 2006, Therapy Doc
(see the last and only religious post I said I would write Lessons From a Family Therapist September if you’re interested in Rosh HaShana)


byjane said...


At my shul, there are a lot of converts. One of them referred to herself and the others as The New Jews.

I absolutely love YK. Those gates...those gates get me every time.

margalit said...

This brought such tears to my eyes. In our shul we have several survivors, some are couples, some all alone. I think it's hard for younger people to be friendly to them. Our shul is not a friendly place to begin with (we only stay to support a couple, each with cancer, that are our close friends) and they are horrid to newcomers. Nobody says hello, nobody asks them to sit with them at kiddush. So you did such a mitzvah by befriending Fela. Especially on YK.