Mom’s Surgery – Part II

When I met my parents for lunch in Sacramento on Monday, Mom was irritated and in a foul mood. They had made the three and a half hour drive for a doctor appointment at Kaiser, a supposedly necessary connection to set a surgery date at UC Davis.

Except that Kaiser refused to do any such thing. UC Davis? They simply claimed not to know what Mom was talking about. Despite what my parents may have been told at Kaiser in Fresno, Kaiser in Sacramento insisted that they don’t schedule surgery at UC Davis. Any surgery would have to be done at Kaiser’s own hospital in Sacramento. And anyway, there were no available surgery dates for months.

Understandably, Mom wondered which Kaiser facility was lying to her. I voted for Sacramento on that score. Why would Kaiser in Fresno tell her that the surgery could be done at the respected teaching hospital at UC Davis if that were not true?

Answer: To shut my sister up. Sis had driven down to support Mom at her gynecology appointment at Kaiser in Fresno a few weeks ago. Mom related that Sis and the doctor got along famously, Sis rambling on about her work as a sonographer. But Mom’s medical record betrayed a different story. Mom only found out because the doctor in Sacramento inexplicably read aloud the part of the record characterizing Sis as a meddler unhappy with her mother’s care. I can only conclude that the nonexistent Davis option was the Fresno doctor’s way of mollifying Sis. When Mom reported this to my sister, the latter got on the phone to Kaiser in Fresno to complain, only to be told that she must have misunderstood.

So Davis is out. I suggested to Mom that if she was going to have the surgery at Kaiser, she might as well have it done at their Fresno hospital, where she’d be close to home. No, she told me, apparently the surgery that she needs to remove her teratomas is sufficiently specialized that Kaiser does not do it in Fresno.

The surgeon in Sacramento, whom Mom characterized as a young kid “who I wouldn’t hire as a waitress,” never shut up for a minute and never let Mom get a word in edgewise. To add further ambience to our lunch, Mom was fighting with Dad (what else is new ::eye roll::), who she insisted had consistently sided with the young floozie against her.

The next day, Mom was informed that a cancellation had resulted in an available surgery appointment on October 1 at Kaiser’s Sacramento hospital. Since it falls on a Tuesday, Mom agreed. Any day but Friday. “People die when they have surgery on Friday,” she explained.

The only problem is that Mom’s scheduled surgery falls on Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year (one of our High Holy Days). Mom was clearly conflicted about this, but I assured her that she had made the right decision. She’s been feeling pretty lousy lately and, well, that’s when a surgery date was available. Waiting months for the surgery just to avoid the holiday made no sense to me.

The young surgeon opined that she could do the surgery laparoscopically, getting Mom sprung from the hospital after just an overnight stay. I am not sure why I am a bit skeptical. Regardless, my parents will be arriving next weekend, sleeping on the blow-up mattress in our living room. Pre-op is Monday, then surgery on Tuesday. I have arranged for some time off work and will be chauffeuring them the 45 minutes each way to Sacramento for the duration, however long that may turn out to be.

There are entirely too many things that can go wrong, both at my house and at the hospital. I remind myself to calm down and put it all in perspective.

After all, it could be me going under the knife.

Dealing With Family

Shofar

To paraphrase the younger generation’s pejorative, “oy to the vey.”

In all my years on this crazy planet, I still haven’t figured out how to deal with family.  When God gave us the Fifth Commandment, “honor thy father and thy mother,” I think he was putting us to the test.  And I think I’m getting a failing grade.

My wife tells me that it’s not my fault, other than perhaps my habitual failure to tell my mother to stop already when she gets into serious nagging mode.  “What did you ever do to her?” my wife asks me.

Well, if I were to trip merrily down the path of Jewish guilt, I suppose the answer to that question might take several hours.  For starters, I was born.  By all accounts, my mother had a hell of a time with that one.  It pretty much went downhill from there.

My parents are both eighty years old, and I can’t fathom what on God’s green earth we are going to do when they can’t manage by themselves anymore in that huge house of theirs out in the country.

My wife and I tried to dilute some of the bitterness that is always part and parcel of a visit with my parents by running into town to shop, eat some great restaurant food and visit with other family members and friends.

After synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashannah, my wife and I snuck off to our favorite Italian restaurant, staking out our old table in the corner from back in the days when we lived in the area.  In updating its menu, DiCicco’s has pulled off a feat that is rare indeed:  Their food is now even better than we remember it.

As a vegan, it is next to impossible for me to find decent food when we are on the road.  It is a refreshing treat to be able to patronize a restaurant that is willing to adjust the way a dish is prepared in order to accommodate the dietary needs of customers.  This is a two-way street:  Some accommodation had to be made on my end, as well.  I am not among the dogmatic camp of vegans, although I do admire their commitment.  I consider myself “as vegan as I wanna be,” and I am willing to concede that even if my eggplant is fried in olive oil, that bread crumb coating is likely to contain some grated cheese.  Even the bread used to make my sandwich is likely to contain butter in the batter.  However, after eating a million salads without dressing and plain baked potatoes at restaurants up and down California, I am happy to be flexible enough to be able to start out my new year eating this:

DiCicco's

It was so amazingly delicious that we returned on the second day of Rosh Hashannah to eat it again.  This time, we invited my parents to come and experience the incredible right along with us.  My mother felt she had to decline the invitation, pleading orneriness on the part of my father.  “If I go, your father will want to eat out every Rosh Hashannah.  He won’t want to eat at home, and when I tell him it’s a holiday, he’ll remind me of the time I went out to eat with you guys when you were visiting.”

So we went by ourselves again and enjoyed it just as much the second time.

Then we went to visit some babies.

On a residential side street, we saw an SUV prominently proclaiming “world’s sexiest husband” in the rear window, while the side windows were emblazoned with the vehicle’s apparent sobriquet:  Shaggin’ Wagon.

I guess that explains all the babies.

We drove out to the boondocks to visit my wife’s nephew and his girlfriend in order to make the acquaintance of Payton, their newborn daughter.  I had never before visited this Central Valley farm town, about ten miles from Lemoore, itself a backwater known for a military installation and an Indian gambling casino.  We drove by vineyards, citrus groves and multiple dairy farms.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen so many cows in one place.  The aging apartment complex, complete with rudimentary playground and barbecue grills, all sitting next to a tiny supermarket with  curved façade, reminded me of something right out of 1962 New Jersey.  All I needed was some Skeeter Davis on my headphones to transport me right back to the Baby Boom era.

Payton

My wife held the baby, fed her a bottle and gave her a good burp while Mama ran back and forth to her own mother’s apartment right next door.  We headed back to my parents’ for dinner, but we knew we had had about enough.  We had planned to stay another day, but when I found myself escaping the oppressive heat of my parents’ house by sitting out on the patio in the evening breeze, and my father tried to make dinner plans for the following evening, I knew I just couldn’t do it.  I surreptitiously texted my wife and told her we needed to get out of there.

And so we escaped, intending the make the nighttime drive up the Central Valley, all the way home.  We made it about halfway when my wife admitted that she couldn’t see straight anymore.  As I try to avoid night driving due to vision challenges, we ended up in a motel by the side of the freeway.  You know the kind I mean.  For $55, you get one tiny bar of soap that you can transport back and forth between the sink and the shower should you have the audacity to engage in such frivolity as wanting to wash your hands after using the toilet in the evening and to bathe the following morning as well.  I guess I shouldn’t be so picky.  When you’re traveling, you get what you get, right?

Our unscheduled overnight stop had the advantage of allowing us to visit another baby, Zoë, granddaughter of a couple who is among my wife’s oldest friends.  They are fun people and we took the opportunity to cut up with them at lunch and then spend part of the afternoon watching the local favorite San Francisco Giants have their way with the Padres on a big screen TV in our friends’ living room.  Our friends have adult kids and their spouses, grandkids and dogs all living with them, so my wife got to hold the baby while various human and canine residents wandered in and out, seeking our attention.

Our friends’ little grandson ran outside to pick two tiny purple blossoms, presenting one each to my wife and me as we got in the car to head home.  Somehow it seemed like a fitting ending to the holiday weekend and an auspicious start to the new year.

And that’s when I remembered the feeling that overcame me when, at services on Thursday, the rabbi unexpectedly called on me to come up to open the ark and recite the lengthy Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King) prayer in English.  With my wife, my father and my mother all in attendance, I could not help but reflect upon the importance of family.

Yes, dealing with family can be a bitch and a half, but I need to count my blessings and remember the many out there who don’t have family with whom they can celebrate the holidays.

We have been blessed over and over again, no two ways about it.

Rosh Hashannah with Family

Six years have gone by since I last spent Rosh Hashannah with my parents.  And I would need all my fingers and most of my toes to count the number of years it’s been since I celebrated the Jewish New Year with either of my sisters.

It’s not that we haven’t planned to spend the High Holy Days with family.  To call upon one of our tritest expressions, “life gets in the way.”  Or, to be more honest with myself, I have made other choices.

Let’s see:  Last year, I made an eleventh hour decision to forgo spending Rosh Hashannah with my parents in order to make a nearly 1,400 mile round-trip drive to attend a job interview.  I knew that I had just a few weeks of work left before I would be laid off, and I had begun to panic.  The interview was a disaster, a total waste of time and money.  I guess it serves me right for not doing the right thing by turning them down in order to spend the holiday with my parents.

2012:  My parents were being feisty and we didn’t want to deal with them.  We blew them off, instead opting for a lovely trip to the ocean, attending a very friendly synagogue in San Luis Obispo and hanging out in Pismo Beach.

2011:  I was able to secure only minimal time off work.  We were living out in the desert, so we settled for attending synagogue near Phoenix, about two hours away.

2010:  I was only a few months into a new job and was denied any time off work.  I worked right through Rosh Hashannah and prayed at home on Yom Kippur, which (thank the Lord) happened to fall on a Saturday.

2009:  There was a death in my wife’s family and we had to attend a funeral at the other end of the state.

Thus, 2008 was the last time I sat down at my parents’ dining room table to dip the apples in honey, pour the wine and recite the Kiddush.

The last time I started a new job, I forgot to ask for the High Holy Days off as a condition of employment.  This time I remembered, although I just barely mentioned it in time.  It’s a Jewish job hunters’ conundrum.  You know they’re not going to allow you time off early in your first year of employment unless you insist on it as a hiring condition.  But if you start asking for time off before you’ve even begun working, will the job offer hold?  What employer wants to hire someone who asks for time off before he even starts work?  It makes an applicant sound suspiciously like someone who doesn’t really want to work, or for whom work is not the first priority, in any event.

Until I was ten years old, my father’s parents lived two hours away and visited us often.  My grandmother worked as a clerk in the office of a large clothing manufacturer, and I remember her telling me that she was able to get one Jewish holiday off each year by switching with a coworker.  You work Yom Kippur for me and I’ll work Good Friday for you.  My grandparents weren’t religious in the slightest, so they just worked through Rosh Hashannah and thought nothing of it.

When I worked in a call center that operated 24/7, I was able to obtain time off for the High Holy Days by switching days with coworkers who wanted a Sunday off.  When I worked in the Silicon Valley high tech industry, I was able to get the High Holy Days off by working Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, all of which were days that meant nothing to me.  My employer didn’t insist that days be switched within the same pay period or even within the same month.  An added advantage was that I would find myself the only one at the office on Christmas and New Year’s, enjoying the peace and quiet as I got some work done.

Today, however, I have a job in the public sector where everyone works Monday through Friday and the office tower is closed up tighter than a drum on weekends and holidays.  Fortunately for me, I have a very kind boss who is willing to accommodate my needs.  I am truly blessed.

So tonight we will head south for a visit with my parents in Madera.  They attend a super Orthodox synagogue in Fresno.  Back when we lived down there in the Central Valley, I had more than a few philosophical run-ins with the rabbi, which resulted in me changing my synagogue of affiliation while my parents stayed put.  For three days out of the year, however, I figure I can handle it, if only for the sake of my parents.

After all, they are now in their eighties and I don’t know how many more opportunities I will have to share Rosh Hashannah with them.

L’shana tovah tikatevu… Best wishes for a happy, healthy and sweet new year to all!

The Last Day of the Year

Elul

In the coming year we will sit on the porch
and watch the flocks of migrating birds
Children on vacation
will be merrily running between the house and the fields
Oh, how wonderful life will be in the coming year!

                                   — Approximate translation of the Hebrew folk song Od Tireh

Today is the last day of the Hebrew month of Elul and hence the last day of the Jewish year.  And just as on December 31, the close of one year and the start of another leaves me in a reflective and introspective state of mind.

Most of us approach the new year with a sense of hope and anticipation.  We like to think of the new year as a clean slate, a fresh opportunity to do better, reach higher, love stronger.  But I recently became aware that, just as many approach the Christmas holidays with a sense of dread and even depression, not everyone enjoys Rosh Hashannah.  For some of us, the apples and the honey, the singing and the shofar and the big holiday se’udot (dinners) just don’t cut it.

One reason for this, I believe, is that if taken seriously, the High Holy Days can be an emotional roller coaster.  Rather than engaging in the riotous merrymaking and drinking of 12/31, on Rosh Hashannah we very somberly admit to our shortcomings, try to figure out where we went wrong and commit ourselves to making changes that will help to make us into the people we really want to be.

Admittedly, this is not exactly fun!  If we are honest, for example, about how we have wasted our time and money, or about some of the awful things we have said and done to those we supposedly love, it can be difficult to look in the mirror.  Everyone wants to think the best of themselves; none of us wants to admit that we’ve done wrong.  Wouldn’t we have a lot better time if we were to play dance music, drink champagne, scream and shout and kiss at midnight?  What is wrong with this type of behavior is that it is geared to help us forget our troubles, not to do something about them.  Inevitably, morning comes and we’ve gained nothing but a hangover.

But why beat ourselves up?  We are not evil people who deliberately set out to do wrong.  Sure, we mess up from time to time.  We’re human.  Can’t we just accept that we’re not perfect?

The answer is that God accepts that we are not perfect.  But since we are made in His image, He also recognizes that we could be much closer to perfection than we are today.  So you’ve made mistakes?  Yes, the Lord forgives, but not so that we can forget about it and then make the same dumb mistakes again.  He forgives so that we can move on, remember where we went wrong before, and do better the next time.  God accepts that we are works in progress, but He does expect us to actually make some progress.  Saying “oh well, I did the best I could” is not acceptable.

So, yes, soul searching is not exactly a source of kicks and giggles. What we are called upon to remember is that God knows all and sees all; nothing can be hidden from Him.  We may as well admit the error of our ways, as they are already known by He who determines our fate.  And indeed, the reason that our holiday season is known as yomim naro’im, The Days of Awe, is that in the Jewish tradition, “on Rosh Hashannah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”  In between these two holidays are ten days of prayer and repentance.  The “eraser” is still in play; the Lord has pity on us when we are honest about our misdeeds and genuinely commit to turning our lives around.  In the liturgy, we pray that “repentance, prayer and charity avert the severe decree.”  God believes in second (and 128th) chances.  But if we are hard-hearted, aver that we have not done wrong and refuse to change our ways, then we have only ourselves to blame when the fate decreed for us in the new year is grim indeed.

The end of the Biblical book of Deuteronomy that we read at this season riffs heavily on the theme of choices and free will.  God has given us the ability to choose whether to do right or to do wrong.  Whichever path we take, we must accept the consequences.  For we are also choosing whether to bring the blessing or the curse into our lives.  If we close our eyes to the suffering around us, ignore the needy and the lonely in our communities, make excuses for not giving liberally of our time and our money, then we have willingly given up the blessing and have no one to blame but ourselves when our prosperity and security comes crashing down around our ears.

I do understand why the gravity of our holiest of seasons makes some people depressed and causes others to dislike Rosh Hashannah.  Yet if we vow to correct our mistakes and to improve on what we’ve done right, we have nothing to fear.  It is then that we can, as in the Hebrew folksong quoted at the start of this post, bring peace, contentment and happiness into our lives all year long.

Hag sameakh and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet and fulfilling year.

 

Shoes Under the Bed

shoes under bed

My mother called a few nights ago and, as might be expected, we began discussing the upcoming Jewish holidays.

Reading from a newsletter published by her synagogue, my mom remarked that Rosh Hashannah begins on the evening of September 4 this year, the earliest date it can possibly occur.  The last time this happened was in 1897.  “That’s two years before my parents were born!” she exclaimed in amazement.

The newsletter went on to describe how, this year, Thanksgiving Day will coincide with the first day of Hanukkah, a confluence that will not occur again until the eightieth century.  In other words, it will never occur again, she said.  My mother believes that planet Earth will no longer be in existence so many thousands of years from now.

Our conversation took a nostalgic turn when I mentioned my grandfather, whose birthday would have been this week.  Although he died back in 1980, he has been on my mind lately.  I was just telling my wife how Grandpa would have been intrigued by our life out here in the desert, and how he would have jumped at the chance to visit us here.

Grandpa was a real “people person,” who believed that strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet.  After crossing the Atlantic from Poland as a young man, he spent the rest of his life in New York City.  He loved the city, and would hop on the subway and gladly transfer twice to visit someone in the farthest corner of one of the outer boroughs.  He enjoyed travel and experiencing new places, as long as at the end of the adventure he could return to his snug apartment in the Bronx.  In his latter years, he began vacationing in Netanya, a Mediterranean beach resort in Israel.

It occurred to me that Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year, is known in the holiday liturgy as yom ha’zikaron, the Day of Remembrance (not to be confused with Israel’s Memorial Day, which bears the same name in Hebrew and is celebrated in April or May).  Indeed, remembering is one of the primary themes of the day.

Jews traditionally view Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur as the days of judgment, the season when the Lord remembers all our deeds of the past year and decrees our fate for the coming year accordingly.  We, too, are admonished to remember what we did and what we failed to accomplish in the year gone by, to admit the error of our ways and to commit to doing better in the following twelve months.  The sound of the shofar is a loud blast designed to shake us out of our reveries and wake us up to the needs of our neighbors waiting right in front of us for the attention from which we have turned away.

But Rosh Hashannah is also an occasion on which we remember loved ones who are no longer here to celebrate with us.  And as I called up childhood memories of walking to synagogue with my grandfather and watching The Jackie Gleason Show and Gunsmoke with him in his living room, my mother revealed that she recently found a letter that he had written to her in 1952.

My mother and father had just married on Christmas Eve and were away for a one-week honeymoon.  They were eighteen years old.  Dad was in the Air Force, working on planes in New Jersey.  But for Mom, this was her first time away from home.

My parents spent a week in a resort hotel at the Jersey shore.  My maternal grandparents were acutely feeling their empty nest, as both their daughters had married and moved out in the same week.  So at the kitchen table, Grandma dictated a letter to her youngest daughter and her new husband, while Grandpa wrote it out in his neat longhand.  “Don’t forget shoes under the bed,” they warned, worrying that my parents’ first visit to a hotel would be marred by losing some of their personal belongings.  “They wanted to make sure that we knew what to do,” my mother explained, “but we did know what to do.”

“Of course you did, Mom,” I responded, wondering how anyone could accidentally leave their shoes behind.  But then I remembered how, in my younger days, when visiting a hotel I would avoid placing clothes in the dresser drawers for fear that, out of sight, I would leave them behind.  And like a message in a bottle, I could feel the love of my grandparents for my mother across a continent and across the span of 61 years.  I am so delighted that, in cleaning out a closet, my mother discovered that she had saved her parents’ letter all this time.

Rosh Hashannah begins on Wednesday evening, and I wish miles and circumstances did not prevent me from sharing the holiday with my parents.  This year, both days of the holiday fall on weekdays, making for two opportunities to hear the sounding of the shofar.  When one of the days of Rosh Hashannah falls on the Sabbath, we do not blow shofar on that day.  In Israel, Rosh Hashannah is only a single day, meaning that if it falls on the Sabbath, there is no shofar heard that year at all.  When this happens, the liturgy changes its description of Rosh Hashannah from “a day of sounding of the shofar” to “a day of recalling the sound of the shofar.”

For me, this year will have to be one of those times of merely recalling the sound of the shofar.  But as I contemplate what the new year may hold, I will count my many blessings, among them that my mother cleaned out a closet and found precious remembrances of our family’s past.

 

Apples, Honey and No. 2 Pencils

apple pencil

In the sunny, sunny hours
bees sip nectar from the flowers
To the hive flies the bee,
making honey for you and me
Shiny apples, round and sweet,
what a happy Rosh Hashannah treat!

At work, I was trying to explain to one of my employees about why I am going to be out for part of the week.  I was pretty sure that mentioning Rosh Hashannah was not going to get me very far.  I could just say that’s it’s the New Year, I thought, then realized that this might result in a mixture of confusion and disbelief since everyone knows that New Year’s is January 1.  Should I get into the differences between the solar calendar and the lunar calendar?  Sigh. Perhaps I can just cite cultural differences, saying that, like the Chinese New Year, the Jewish New Year is celebrated at a different time of year than most of us associate with tearing off the last page of the calendar and making funky resolutions that are long forgotten by the time we get a month or two down the road.

 Just then, it hit me:  The children’s song about bees and flowers and apples and honey that most of us who attended a Jewish school remember from kindergarten.  I hadn’t thought about this little ditty in decades, but somehow it all came back to me in a flash, along with memories of using blunt scissors to cut out paper apples that had our names written on them.

I smiled a goofy grin and explained to my employee that, in my faith, this is our holiday season.  Instead of Christmas and New Year’s, we have Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur.

Later, I realized that this memento of childhood days probably came back to me because, here in California, the school year has just started, and the other day one of my employees took some time off to bring her son to his first day of kindergarten.  All went well at first, she related.  She introduced her son to the teacher, saw that her little one was happily occupied, left the classroom and began walking down the hall.  With a tear in her eye, she noticed the sign posted on the wall:  “Quick exits make fewer tears.”  That’s when she felt something tugging at her dress.  She turned around to find her son asking why she was leaving without him.  Reassuring him that she would be back in a few hours and that he would have fun in the meantime, she retraced her steps and returned her little one to the classroom.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the new school year and the new Jewish year both start at about the same time.  I probably hadn’t made this association because Rosh Hashannah falls extraordinarily early this year, late September or early October being a much more common setting for this holiday.  In both cases we start out hopeful; with new clothes and a positive attitude, we look forward to a fresh start.  Just as it was when we started kindergarten, we fear the unknown that lies before us and find it hard to give up the reassuring familiarity of the past even as we step over the threshold of opportunities for discovery and learning.  As we move forward through the grades of school, we often are eager to leave our mistakes of the previous year behind.  With a blank notebook and a cache of No. 2 pencils, we vow to get it right this time, whether it be in math, writing, getting along with the annoying kid who sits behind us or dealing with the bully on the playground.

Not much has changed over the years.  As in kindergarten, some of us have to be dragged out of our comfort zones, kicking and screaming.  Others go more willingly, albeit with a turn of the head and a tearful wave goodbye.  We resolve to be better stewards of our money and our time, to pay more attention to our children, to be kinder to our neighbors, to be more involved in our communities and to deal more effectively with the bullying influences of life that forever tempt us with frivolity as a viable alternative to self-improvement.

Like the bees sipping nectar from the flowers in the children’s song, we greet the New Year with with vigor and industry, intent on making this time count.  And like the butterfly that has outgrown its cocoon, we long to break away from the limitations of our past, shake off the dewdrops from our newfound wings, and fly away.

Sweet Rosh Hashannah Memories

apples honey

When I was a child, Rosh Hashannah was always a mixed blessing.  Sure, we got out of school for two days and we would eat fancy meals on my mother’s good dishes.  But then there was all that shul.

I would be wearing my white shirt and clip-on tie, my sister would doff her school clothes for a cute dress and my mother would dress up smartly in a pant suit with a crisp blouse.  I would pretend to choke on the smell of hair spray as Mom made up her face in the bathroom mirror.  She would buckle my youngest sister into a stroller and we would all push out the door, around the corner and up the long Alexander Avenue hill.

We’d keep well to the side of the road and watch for cars. I would be wearing a colorful yarmulke, blue or green or purple, the gold inscription on the white inside commemorating someone’s bar mitzvah or wedding that my parents or grandfather had attended.

Mostly we’d walk along in silence, finally reaching the top of the hill and gliding down Williams Avenue to the highway.  We could hear Route 45 before we saw it, the cars whooshing by in both directions.  When we reached it, we’d leave our development and turn left onto the sidewalk.  It contained many cracks and it went up and down in places where tree roots had pushed from underneath.

A few more blocks and we would pass Liotta’s Italian Bakery, the intoxicating aroma of bread and cakes bringing smiles to our faces and reminding me of times my father had snuck out with me for a brownie with fudge icing or a lemon ices.  The Shell gas station and the big shopping center that had both Waldbaum’s and Grand Union, along with two kosher butcher shops, were on the other side of the street, so we didn’t have many cars pulling out into our path.

We crossed two main intersections, the first with Eckerson Road and then, just past Cinema 45 and Chicken Delite, the junction of Hickory Street.  We would press the button on the pole to stop traffic so we could cross.  Then came the final stretch to the big Jewish Community Center.

When we walked in the door, my mother would reach into the bin of white lacy head coverings that married women wore, affixing one to her hair with a bobby pin.

The members, who contributed lots of money all year long, sat in the pews in the main sanctuary upstairs.  We were definitely not members.  We rarely attended synagogue other than on the High Holy Days.  We were one of the downstairs people.

“Downstairs” was the auxiliary service, rows of folding chairs set up beneath the basketball nets in the gymnasium. A visiting cantor had been hired, and he would take turns with the regular cantor, running up and down the stairs to alternate various parts of the service.

Even in the downstairs exurbs, most of the folding chairs had been reserved by those who had a ticket.  We would always come in partway through the service and find some empty seats next to each other.  Before long, a couple or a family would come in with tickets bearing the seat numbers we were occupying.  Time to move.  As the gym filled up, we couldn’t always find four seats together.  At least we don’t need five seats, I would think.  My father always stayed home.

Lucky Dad!  He didn’t have to do all that walking and then sit through hours and hours of Hebrew prayers.  My father had no use for anything to do with religion, which, he would say, was the cause of most of the world’s misery.  I was in fifth grade and hadn’t yet learned the word “atheist.”

The first year or two after we moved out of a crowded apartment in New York City and into a beautiful suburban home, my mother griped and yelled and cajoled until my father came along with us to synagogue just to keep the peace.  Instead of walking with us, he would sleep late and walk over later.  He’d show up close to the end of the service and walk home with us.  Finally, my mother decided that bullying him into joining us “wasn’t worth the aggravation.”

Since I attended a very religious Orthodox yeshiva, I could (mostly) follow along in the Hebrew in the thick mahzor (prayer book).  My mother, who did not read Hebrew, followed along in the English translation and periodically asked me what page we were on.  I felt so grown up when I got to turn the pages of her book and show her where we were.

As the service droned on and on around me, I would zone out and mentally picture the map of South America, silently tracing the countries and reciting the capitals.  Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia.  Huge Brazil that took up most of the page in my social studies textbook.  Mr. Fisher taught us how to say the names of all the capitals with the proper Spanish accent.  “Carrrracas,” I would say under my breath, trying to roll the R just right.  “Asunción.”  All around me, the congregants were singing, and I knew they couldn’t hear me.  Mom would give me a poke.  Okay, I guess someone heard me.

“Congregation, please rise.”  We’d stand up, we’d sit down.  Stand, sit, stand, sit.  Here comes a family down the aisle in their holiday finery.  Time to move agains.  If we couldn’t find another empty seat right away, we’d stand in the back for a while.

My favorite part of the service was always the blowing of the shofar.  The little kids would be walked or carried up to the bimah to view as well as hear the spectacle, while I would stand on my tiptoes to see over and between the adults.  The long, twisted ram’s horn would be blown over and over, too-woo, too-woo, too-woo!  I would wonder how a ram managed to wear that huge thing on his head.  And then it was time for the long tekiah gedolah, where the ba’al tekiah would inhale and blow as long as he could, his face getting redder and redder and the quavering note seeming to last forever.  What a thrilling show!  People would call out Yasher koakh! in congratulations and would reach out to shake his hand.

I would count the pages remaining in the prayer book until the closing hymn.  Forty more pages.  Thirty more pages.  Ooh, the cantor skipped a couple pages, cool!

Like saving balm, I’d finally hear the closing hymns of Adon Olam and Ein Keloheinu.  Then it was up the stairs to the lobby, out the front door, down the entryway out to Route 45.  The long walk home.

I knew we’d have to do the same long walk and boring hours of shul the next day, but for now we were home.  Instead of eating in the kitchen, we’d sit at the dining room table, covered with a white tablecloth, the white holiday candles glowing in Mom’s brass candlesticks.  Apple slices dipped in honey would be served, along with Manischewitz concord grape wine for the adults and grape juice for the children.  We would wish each other a sweet year.  My mother would be up and down heating food and serving us, meat balls in tomato sauce or roasted turkey, with carrots (also a symbol of a sweet year), potatoes and string beans.  We would each dribble a little honey onto our slices of challah.  My father would boil water for tea, and out would come the golden sponge cake and the honey cake with the slivered almonds on top.

Stuffed to the gills, my sisters and I would have the rest of the day to play board games while my parents took a nap.  And there was no school tomorrow.  This was indeed a sweet start to the new year.

L’shana tova, everyone!  Happy New Year 5774.  May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet year.