The Spirit of Rosh Hashanah Past

My father grew up in an orthodox Jewish home, in ‘grinding poverty’, as he always phrased it.  My mother’s cousin, whose family moved many times during the Depression to get a free month’s rent here and there, told me a few years ago “we were poor, but your father’s family was really poor.”  I don’t doubt my father’s childhood was a nightmare.  He was still clawing his way through it on his deathbed in a Florida hospital seven decades later.

His tyrannical, violent mother was the religious one.  I don’t know that his father particularly cared one way or the other, though he swept the synagogue for a dollar or two a week.  My paternal grandfather was described to me as eternally deadpan; his face simply two eyes, a nose and a mouth.   My father’s mother would give generously to the synagogue, even though they had almost nothing themselves.  Nobody there was in any position to question this practice.    

My father became less and less religious over the years.  Bacon started being cooked in the house at some point during my childhood (he didn’t eat it) and eventually, and much to my disappointment, somehow, he tasted pork in a Chinese restaurant.  He liked it, though, to my knowledge he only did this once.  Growing up we’d hear: I’m so hungry I could eat ham!  Something he got from his days in the army when Corporal Israel ate side dishes at meals of ham.  Like many modern American Jews, he took the High Holidays seriously, bought his expensive ticket and sat and stood and sat (“please be seated”) and stood (“please rise”) all day at the services I found so hypocritical and meaningless.  

My mother had no use for religion, although she proudly identified as a cultural Jew, could not have been mistaken for anything else, really, except, maybe, ethnic Italian.   My sister and I stayed out of the synagogue too, for the most part, after experiences there that probably turned off many to the rituals of our ancient religion.  I often said my experience at Hillcrest Jewish Center Hebrew School turned me into an anti-Semite, though that’s an overstatement for effect.  The heart of religion is good.  I’d have to think the heart of every religion is.   The practice is where the trouble generally comes in.  

I have a few friends who take deep comfort from the rituals of religion; I don’t.  I cannot look past the dark side, the crimes and bloodshed so many avowedly religious people take part in, with the monomaniacal self-righteousness that comes from believing God smiles on their horrible acts.  The examples are too well known to require any listing here.   But the experience of wonder, of gratefulness for the many gifts of this world, the impulse to create, to be gentle, to laugh, to share, to care, to repair what is in need of fixing, all these are encompassed by most religious teachings.  

The religious background I had was Judaism and my values were informed by its stories.  There are two Jewish holidays I find very meaningful and that have shaped my life to a great extent.  One is Passover, the holiday that commemorates the eternally incomplete journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the world.  A Jew is commanded to retell the story at the seder, an ordered meal that sets out a template for the discussion of values.  This was always a serious discussion in my childhood home, as it is at the seder Sekhnet and I now attend every year.   The value expressed is realizing there is no difference between the children of the rich and the children of the poor and oppressed.  

We are encouraged to take the lesson of our people’s persecution to heart: to identify with the stranger, the other, the underdog, the slave, the oppressed, and reaffirm our commitment to fighting for justice for everyone.   I find this holiday very meaningful and important.  It has probably influenced me more than it should have, I haven’t separated out the symbolism to the extent most practical people do.  

The other holiday I find profound and valuable is the New Year tradition of seeking forgiveness and releasing others from our anger.  We are commanded to make amends with those we’ve injured in the past year during the ten days of repentance, between New Year’s Eve and Yom Kippur, when our fate for the coming year is metaphorically sealed by our imaginary protector with the long beard, the Creator, blessed be He, who created everything miraculous and, because he is all merciful, left humans to figure out what to do about the Hitlers, Stalins, Pol Pots, Cheneys, the raping priests and bloodthirsty preachers.  

The blessings are all from God, the man upstairs; the curses of mankind, as theodicy concludes, are all the result of humans’ misuse of the free will generously bestowed by the Holy Name.  Yeah, yeah.   Fuck all that shit.  The part that interests me is the tradition of righting our psychic accounts at this time of year.  We are supposed to honestly search our lives over the past year for times we have behaved badly, acted wrongly, hurt others.  It is our duty to humbly seek to make things better, to apologize, forgive, offer peace instead of further bad karma.  Prayer and good intentions won’t do it, we have to humbly approach humans and keep our vows to act better.  

It is far easier to see the harms others have done to us than to take an honest inventory of our own hurtful actions and cruel inactions.  I see this more clearly every year as I ponder.  Also, how hard it is to forgive the unrepentant, even as I am challenged to sincerely repent for things I’ve done that I can’t imagine were as hurtful as they may well have been.    

I always think of one Yom Kippur when I went, as usual, to meet my father outside the synagogue after a long day of fasting and services, everybody ashen faced and bad-breathed, trudging off in the gathering darkness with quick, tottering steps to break their day-long fast.  I walked down there as services were getting out, met him and we walked back home, less than a half a mile along Union Turnpike in Queens.   I had a long list of bad things my father had done and would never apologize for, including many terrible failures that had undermined my sister and me over the years, but I’d formulated it as one thing I needed to put on the table.  I’m sure I’ve written out this story before, but I’ll offer the fast version of it here.  

I am reminded of this because my closest friend, a very good man, about the best man you can imagine, has too much pain from his mother’s long betrayals to find it in his heart to truly forgive her for her considerable limitations.   I don’t hammer at it often, though I’ve brought it up over the years, he will be gentle with her as she lays dying, there is no doubt, and it is a shame the healing won’t start until then.  Life is a very painful matter sometimes.  

Anyway, the particular Yom Kippur I’m describing my mother was putting the finishing touches on some no doubt delicious dinner and I sat across from my father in the living room.  I had fasted, as I always do on Yom Kippur, not in fear of God, if there is such a thing, but because it is a good practice, and I always think I should do it more than that one day a year.  If we never feel hungry how do we remember what it is that much of the world experiences every day?

My father was a brilliant, adroit and witty man.  He used these skills brutally much of the time.  His humor had a sting to it, more often than not.  His skills in constructing arguments were used to build impregnable walls around his vulnerable childish heart.  He regretted these things on his death bed.  But walking back from the shul that Yom Kippur he was silent as a sphinx, cautious, waiting to defend himself against anything I might say.  

What I said when we sat in the living room in the little house I grew up in was that I was glad to hear his fatherly advice, provided he stopped using it as a delivery system for his hostility.  I would no longer tolerate being reduced to the sum of my faults while listening to the harsh things “your friends are too spineless to tell you.”   Whether my friends had spines or not, I needed to be treated respectfully by my angry father.  I told him if this did not happen we would no longer have the pretense of a relationship.  I reminded him of my many attempts to make peace with him and he fought as hard as he could not to give a millimeter.  I was determined, and undeterred, and in the end he agreed that he would try to do better.  We broke the fast.

“That’s what you have to do with a bully,” my friend would agree, “be direct, do not back down, do not give in to fear or anger.  Keep pushing the fucker back, it is the only thing a bully understands.  Good for you.”   So, for the next fifteen years or so my father and I had a superficially better relationship.  

At the end of that fifteen years he revealed, during an argument in which he was for the first time overmatched, that he’d only pretended to change his feelings toward me, that if he ever told me what he really felt it would do “irreparable harm” to our relationship.  Checkmate, Dad, have it your way, you win.  And for the last two years, as unbeknownst to both of us he was steadily dying from undiagnosed liver cancer, we kept things cooly superficial.  In the meantime I realized how damaged he was, and that he could not do any better, that it was up to me to make some kind of peace with it.  I made some kind of peace with it, lucky for both of us it was a couple of months before he started actively nosediving toward death.

As he was dying, of course, he lamented his lifelong inability to be truly open to people, to experience real intimacy, to express love.   “I wish we could have had this kind of conversation fifteen years ago,” he said weakly toward the end of the last conversation of his life, “but I was just too fucked up.  It’s my fault, I felt you reaching out to me many times over the years…”.  I recall thinking at the time what a modest and pathetic wish that was– thirty-five years of senseless war and fifteen years of peace.

Of course, I’d take it now, fifteen years, five years, one year, a week, another 24 hours.  There is not time enough to heal certain wounds and it is an uncertain process at best.   We are all left to heal ourselves, as best we can, and to stay open and caring to those who share our best hopes for a good world.  There is no time to struggle with drowning souls determined to take us with them to the nightmare depths as they irrationally defend their right to drag us with them, but the time for healing– very important time.

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