The D.U. was the Dreaded Unit, my father, who died in April of 2005. Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year, it means literally “head of the year”. This year is 5777 on the Jewish calendar. There are still a few literal-minded, God-fearing Jews who believe that it was 5777 years since God created the heavens and the earth in six days, resting on the seventh, but I can’t imagine there are very many of them.
For all I know Chava, my father’s mother, believed that. Belief, of course, is a funny thing, not really amenable to debate or logic. The things we live by are like that, they can only be changed by an experience that makes a deep enough impression. Belief is like anger, I suppose, or love — it resides in a deep place in the brain, in the soul.
If you love someone, it’s not the end of the world if they say something you might find offensive coming from somebody else. You understand completely where they’re coming from. If you are disposed to become enraged, you will see provocations everywhere, no matter how imperceptible these might be to others.
I suppose it’s the same with God. My friend’s parents spent the years 1939-45 as teenagers and young adults in Poland at the mercy of the Nazis. The Nazis, I hardly need to say, were not known for mercy, which they despised as a race-weakening Jewish vice. My friend’s mother had been pushed out the back door with her much younger brother by her parents and told to run as the Nazis burst in the front door. They survived in hiding, and living by their wits and their luck, for the entire war. His father wound up in a concentration camp and was eventually promoted to the Major League team at Auschwitz. The mother came out of the war an atheist, quite reasonably believing there could be no God after what she’d experienced. The father came out of Auschwitz deeply religious, eternally grateful to God for the miracle of saving his life, another reasonable conclusion.
It’s hard to know what my father’s view of God was. I know Chava was very religious and he was raised in a strict, joyless, loveless home where every commandment of God was taken very seriously. Every one but the crucial unwritten ones about loving each other, being kind, forgiving those who seek your forgiveness.
Because he was raised as an orthodox Jew, my father continued to go to High Holiday services every year until the end of his life. He would fast and pray in a synagogue all day on Yom Kippur. At the end of his life he waved feebly and shook his head when I asked if he wanted me to say kaddish for him after he died.
Kaddish is a prayer of thanks to God, uttered in Aramaic, a language only a few scholars can understand today. Traditionally the male child says kaddish for a dead parent every morning, not long after sunrise, for a year, in the company of at least nine other Jewish men who will also chant the haunting prayer with the mourner.
My father waved his hand weakly and said it made no difference to him, he really didn’t care. Sekhnet and I said kaddish together every day for thirty days after he died anyway. In the event, I guess, that if his soul was hovering nearby, he’d be touched and feel loved.
I feel like my father instilled in my sister and me what I consider the most important teachings of our religion, though he didn’t try to impose anything regarding the rituals. When we tasted bacon at a diner, and loved it, he didn’t object when my mother began frying bacon in the kitchen at home, as his mother, Chava, rotated angrily in her grave. He didn’t eat it, but he didn’t raise any objection. He was, we all were, primarily secular Jews, Jewish humanists.
We celebrated Rosh Hashana with a big meal, our small family gathered around. Sam and Yetta, my mother’s parents were there, Eli and his wife Helen, and my uncle Paul and aunt Barbara, my cousins Jon and Ann. We did the same at Passover. During these annual meals he instilled in my sister and me the moral essence of the occasion.
Passover was about identifying strongly with the oppressed and fighting oppression, for we were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Rosh Hashana was about a new start, getting all of our ethical affairs in order, making sure God knew we would try to do better in the coming year by making amends, apologizing to those we’d hurt and granting forgiveness to those who sought it from us.
Which, actually, you know, is fucking hilarious.
It is way easier to rise and please be seated, and rise, and turn to page 79 for the long standing silent prayer, and be seated, and please rise, and shiver with awe as the holy ark is opened, and bow your head in unison with the congregation when the appropriate words are chanted, rip your sleeve to show your penance, and sing in a chorus of praise to God, than it is to go up to someone you’ve been mean to and humbly apologize. I don’t believe I ever saw my father do that, nor, in my experience did he ever forgive, himself or anybody else.
I think of that today because good people, hurt, routinely act viciously. They cling righteously to their angry justifications for why the hurtful event was not their fault, why you were the actual cruel perpetrator of anger and hurt, not them. They will mutter a half apology while blaming you for being hurt and not unconditionally accepting what they consider a completely sincere semi-apology. They utter what Harry Shearer styles an if-pology,
“If you feel I did something bad to you, and I’m sure you feel I did because of what a relentless prick you’re being to me now, then, truly, I am deeply, deeply sorry.”
You can take an apology like that, swallow it with a little sacramental wine, and blow it out your ass like the fart it was to begin with.
“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” said the skeleton of my father, not without a slight blush of pride on a very chilly Rosh Hashana night on his lonely hill in the boneyard.