Rosh Hashanah services in Hawaii… the Barchu, Shema, Amidah, Aleinu… there was such a sense of going home with these prayers, these prayers I’ve been reciting almost my whole life. I’m nine, at Temple Tifereth Israel in Winthrop, Massachusetts. My hometown. One of a very small group of kids from my mostly Irish and Italian neighborhood who walk to the temple after school, twice a week, to attend Hebrew School. Once there, short, chubby, bespectacled Mr. Zippor greets us at the door to his classroom and takes our hand, kissing his own hand as he says, in his heavily accented English, “I kiss your hand!”
We start our lesson laughing. My Bat Mitzvah will take place just a few years later, in 1971, so I have to learn how to read this language that’s read backwards, with letters and symbols that have nothing to do with the language I’ve been speaking my whole life, and even less to do with the language of my Irish and Italian friends on the block. But I pay attention… I learn it… the language, the meaning of the prayers, and in three years will I stand on the bima and read from the Torah, something my mother and my grandmother didn’t get to do because back then that honor was reserved for boys, and even my Bat Mitzvah would not be as elaborate as my brother’s Bar Mitzvah five years later, but three decades after that my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, at Barnert Temple in New Jersey, followed by a party on a big boat that took us around NYC, was every bit as significant and grand as my son’s Hawaii Bar Mitzvah would later be. It’s 1996. Twenty-five years after my Bat Mitzvah. I’m at a High Holiday service at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. We just joined this synagogue, located right outside NYC, and there’s a community of people I’m meeting through gathering in this beautiful house of worship with the sharing of the prayers. The chants. For me it’s not about organized religion… it’s about community and DNA and it feels ancient; it doesn’t matter if we came there from Israel or Boston or New York City or Eastern Europe or anywhere else… The Barchu, Shema, Amidah, Aleinu… the prayers that resonate for me on Rosh Hashanah, we all know them. It’s a collective language we speak, one I learned at a young age when My Zippor sat our class down in front of a chalkboard in a classroom of a small temple in a mostly non-Jewish community in Massachusetts, and he taught us the Hebrew alphabet. That’s where we started. Fast forward to today, to 2016.
Twenty years after being a young mom at Barnert Temple in New Jersey… after walking into that congregation not knowing anyone and leaving, ten years later, deeply entrenched in that community. I’m in Hawaii now. There’s no synagogue on this island; we’re the wandering Jews having services wherever there’s an available space, but then someone donates a two-room office space in one of the resorts and we gather there, and it’s ours. It’s not beautiful… there’s a low ceiling with florescent lighting and no stained glass and the chairs are folding chairs, none of the lovely wooden rows of seats found in other temples, but there is the magnificent rescued and restored Torah from a synagogue in Czechoslovakia, and because of this sacred scroll this office space becomes a temple, and I’m there after having not been there in a long time because my kids are grown and gone, and I’m thinking about all this when the service begins. I know the prayers. I’ve always known the prayers. I don’t even need the book but I read it anyway, in Hebrew, not the English transliteration, because I remember how to read that language — the one I learned as a kid when I wanted to be playing on the street with my friends who didn’t have to go to Hebrew School, and the words of these prayers roll off my lips, along with everyone else, and at this service there’s a fiddle playing… the distinct mournful sound of that instrument, so much more insistent from the gentler violin, even though it’s physically the same instrument… and suddenly I’m even further back, before Hawaii and New Jersey and Winthrop — it’s the late 1880’s in Riga, Russia, where my great grandparents and their parents lived and gathered to pray.
Riga, a place I’ve never been and a place my family eventually had to escape when Jews were no longer welcome to live in their own homes, when Jews were being rounded up and forbidden to gather… to pray… and finally sent away on trains to nowhere during the unbearable time of the Holocaust — but on this day, October 2nd, 2016, the first day of Rosh Hashanah in the Jewish year of 5777, as the fiddle plays, I’m with all of them — my ancestors, my beloved grandmother, long gone now, and all the Jews gathering around the world as we recite the same prayers… the Barchu, Shema, Amidah, Aleinu… and I remember that through the passing down of the prayers, all of these years, we are connected through language and community and story and the act of gathering to worship. And I realize, at that moment, that this is one of the deepest forms of going home.