26 September 2011

A Memory

One Rosh Hashanah I remember clearly. It was a late Oedipal appearance.
My parents lived at the time in Rego Park, and my father had purchased his balcony tickets for the High Holiday services. As many seem to know, in the Fall season many Jews dust off their spiritual identity and make their way to services for the High Holidays. Many, many seats are sold. This sale of tickets serves as a very important fund raiser for the religious establishments, and for a community as large as the Rego Park Jewish Center, to accommodate the many, many Jews desiring entrance, services are held in a number of venues and tickets are required for admittance. Ticket prices vary with the proximity to the main sanctuary where the tickets are at a premium and are very expensive. My father always bought tickets for services in the main sanctuary, but the tickets in the downstairs were always sold at a very high price and were often reserved for the shul hierarchy, and so my father always purchased his seats for the balcony. For this year he had purchased two tickets, one for himself, of course, and one for either my mother or his eldest sonme. When I was younger the children were always dressed in fresh clothes and the women sported the newest, stylish apparel. When I was younger, women’s sported the newest hats of the season, and those who owned them removed their fur coats from storage. The High Holidays were always a fashion show.
In Rego Park my mother no longer wanted or needed to purchase new attire for the holidays; not did she desire to display that which she already owned. Her attendance was minimal. She would usually arrive to sit with my father during the Rabbi’s sermon and leave not long after he finished.  On her way out I would make my way in: she would surreptitiously hand me her ticket as she exited and I entered. There were rules against sharing tickets. On Rosh Hashanah this move was not very complicated, but on Yom Kippur after the Rabbi’s sermon the Yizkor service was held and there were lines of people stretching down the block for the opportunity to say Kaddish for their loved ones. The crowds made finding each other troublesome.
On this particular Rosh Hashanah, I arrived in shocking blue hand painted painter jeans purchased at Canal Jeans when it still existed (now it is a Bloomingdale’s department store), and a copy of Thoreau’s Walden in my backpack. I had on a sport shirt and a clashing tie and wore no sport coat.  I slipped into the row in the middle of which sat my father; he turned to me and I knew at once that he viscerally disapproved of my attire. I had succeeded.
But I was not finished. While he pored over the prayers in his siddur wrapped in his tallit, I pulled out from my book bag my worn copy of Thoreau and opened it to one of the chapters—maybe “Reading.” And it was this act that proved too much for him. “What are you doing?” he hissed. “Put that away.” I think my father was afraid that God or someone else would see that I was not engaged in prayer, and my father would be humiliated or blameworthy.  I objected insincerely, but then obeyed. It was a short chapter anyway.
Why do I recall this now? Today, I go regularly to shul, participate actively in the services, and sometimes lead a class of unruly and even ungovernable middle-schoolers. I know how to read Torah in a variety of tropes, with a little practice can chant haftorah and any number of different parts of the service. I am still a bit uncomfortable in the sanctuary, but I have learned to engage in it in search of some spiritual space. I think my father would take great pride in my engagement in Judaism; ironically, it has exceeded even his knowledge, but alas, he died twelve years ago, not a few years before all of this development. I’m sorry he won’t know, because in his unhappy life this might have given him happiness. I recall this Rosh Hashanah now because I have two children. Both have read Walden.
Ophelia says, “We know what we are but not what we might be.” And Hillel says “If not now, when?” Both of them seem right to me, but now I can only ever do what I am now. Fortunately, it is never enough.


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