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.