We were never shul goers in our family, strange in a sense since on both sides, the family were founders of both Beth Shalom and Adath Israel. In the latter, my grandfather’s steely haired and aristocratic looking brother lays claim to being one of the earliest presidents.
We lived across the street from the synagogue and my father, feeling betrayed by G- d when he lost the power of his legs to polio, refused to worship in the sanctified halls. Instead he would decry his credo and ethics as a good man, quietly instilling in us that a good person does not need to go to shul. And never was there a more honest, truthful or hardworking person than our father.
So growing up, In spite of having to attend Hebrew School three nights aweek, our true religious immersion consisted of the family celebrations of family feasts usually held at my grandparents house on Atlas, many children and grandchildren somehow fitting into a tiny dining room encircling a table that usually sat a handful now expanded to fit the needs of more than twenty, the men in hats, the women wearing bright lipstick and holding squirming babies. Only my grandmother after cooking and serving sat by herself in the kitchen, sucking chicken bones or just resting.
So perhaps it is the inheritance of family gatherings that has translated into my own enactment of the family meal:
I buy fish that is all ready chopped to craft my gefelte fish. I use a mixer to whip the whites of my eggs for my matzoh balls and I wonder at old stories of people who kept live fish fresh in their bathtubs for their appetizers, not wanting to think how that squirming fish was somehow subdued onto special holiday plates garnished with a medallion of carrot. I cook and freeze several weeks before, only leaving three days before the actual supper for the perishables such as potato kugel which must be made the day of. I ponder, truly amazed, how did they manage all of that exhausting work, standing, hucking, stirring, etc?
I love my Rosh Hashana table. It is set with heirlooms of my mother and grandmother, sparkling, glistening, light catching silver and treasures upon which I mount countless offerings. And always at the center there are purple orchids, pink roses and snowy dahlias, for me, the stars of the evening. The tablecloth is crisply linen and much like Downtown Abbey I try to align the forks and spoons, eyeballing them from the edge of the coordinating napkins.
When I was young, the grandkids would drop to the basement rec room at my grandparents as soon as possible , the oldest cousin ordering us around. And we adored him. Here at my table are only part of our brood because some live far away and others have not arrived into our earthly realm yet. My heart longs for those missing.
The day in synagogue also differs. Once members of a large synagogue, we have now departed, modern day nomads for a congregation led by a woman who can make any ragtag group feel like family. Whether a service is held in a gymnasium with basket ball nets festooned by garlands of flowers or in churches where the aleph bet cleverly hides Christian icons, she has magical ability to create community of diversity. We listen to two devor torahs that are so sensitive we want to wrap our arms around the speakers and hold them tenderly. My husband turns to me and whispers, These people are thoughtful; They are thinkers. Imagine the chutzpah to publicly interpret Sara’s treatment of Hagar as cruel or proclaim Avraham’s disobedience to G-d in sacrificing Yitzhak as his greatest moment, announcing that doubt in religion tempers fanaticism. I do not know any of the people who sit side by side with me but their greetings, their smiles are sincere and welcoming. I sometimes think I might join a study group here, but never do.
Yet my High holiday experience here brings me deeper into what I think a religion should be, with people who do not just repeat or spout paradigms, wagging their fingers and accepting without question the ways of the old and well troden.
Now I do not mind sitting longer, singing barely audible or nodding amicably to the participants here to whom I am joined. It is a happy pleasure I embrace every year. The blowing of shofar is long and sweet and I nod in delight, feeling this may in fact be a very good year.