WASHINGTON, September 16, 2012 — Rosh Hashana, the Jewish 5773 new year holiday, begins today, September 16, at sundown and calls on Jews to begin ten days of reflection. It will culminate in Yom Kippur, the day of repentance.
On that day, Jews recite a prayer that resonates from my childhood, the Al Khet. Each line begins with the words “For sins” followed by specific acts of wrongdoing. Many worshippers strike their hearts with a closed fist while reciting each sin.
When I was six, I saw my father cry for the first time. He was sitting in the rocker in my parents’ bedroom and his hand was on his heart. This man, who was so strong and big, rhythmically beat his heart while he wept. His brother, my uncle, had died at age 53.
When my father was close to death and abed in a hospital, I saw him strike his heart in this same gesture, and heard him utter the words Al Khet in his sleep.
While I take the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to review my own failures in this lifetime of raising children, and of loving and living and totaling; and as the sums get added up of the good, the bad and the middling, I remember him. And I wonder him: The man who struck his chest, who totaled, who took the Al Khet to heart.
My father barely graduated high school. His geometry teacher was a drunk, and my father wrote that on the board and got expelled.
The truth is crooked and should not be chalked.
My father couldn’t afford the photo or the yearbook from Eastern High School in East Baltimore where he somehow did get that high school diploma, but didn’t walk across the stage: No one to come to see him. His father was dead and his mother spoke only Russian and Yiddish and never left the four-block radius that kept her safe.
While expelled, my father shot balls in a pool hall, met a lab technician whose low-level job at Hopkins Medical School and Hospital gave him time and money for pool and opera and books. This man, the stranger, could see my father in the way we see from the heart—not the eye or mind—with compassion and empathy. The stranger saw where the gambling would lead this young man he encountered across a felt board on a balanced table, each with stick in hand and ready to shoot.
He lent my father a copy of Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. My father read that one and every other novel Hardy wrote. He read The Forsythe Saga by John Galsworthy. He visited the lab technician’s flat on East Baltimore’s Broadway near the lab and not too far from Milton Avenue, the street and neighborhood his mother dared not venture from, where she was putting briskets in the oven.
At the lab technician’s flat, my father heard Wagner and Beethoven and Chopin, the voice of Enrico Caruso on a gramophone.
Reading was my father’s game now. Opera, his obsession.
He wanted to go to Towson State Teachers College and go back to Eastern High to teach literature to show the drunk how you really chalk the board. But in 1924, he couldn’t afford the 15-cent trolley fare from his home to the college.
So, instead, he sold shoes, earned five bucks a week, and gave two to his mother.
He gave me my first book: Green Mansions by R.H. Hudson, with its heroine, the sylph Rima, who he always said I was. This book that I still own is boxed in a black protective folder that sheds, crumbles in my hand when I remove the treasured gift, the book—still perfect—that my father gave me when I was a child.
In the words of that volume, I traveled without passport to the erotic and the primitive, to the wilderness and came back changed.
The days of awe between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are about change. The Al Khet is about change, and all we do that gives us hope for a new and better ending even if our beginning was fraught with failure and wrongdoing.
The days of awe acknowledge the process of re-creation that is the journey from birth to death.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, Creation, we are taught, is not an act that happened once upon a time, once and forever. The act of bringing the world into existence is a continuous process.… Every instant is an act of creation. A moment is not a terminal but a flash, a signal of Beginning.
In 5773, in 2012, let us begin anew.
To every Jew, to every Muslim, to every Christian, to every Buddhist, to you anywhere no matter your faith, I offer this hope: Let us connect anew and let us begin.
Mary L. Tabor is the author of the memoir: (Re)Making Love: a memoir and The Woman Who Never Cooked. Her novel Who by Fire will be available in November. She says, “I ferret out the detail, love the footnote, am never bored and believe it all leads to story. Best advice I ever got? ‘Only connect …’ E.M. Forster.” Find out more at http://www.maryltabor.com
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