It’s not quite as easy for a Jewish person in America to know that Rosh Hashana is coming as a Christian (or anybody) to know that Christmas is coming – what with all the signs commencing in mid-September announcing the number of shopping days until – but it’s almost as easy – especially here in The Land. It’s especially easy for a shul goer anywhere, with the extra prayers, the blowing of the shofar every weekday morning for a month before. However, in general, I’m more likely to be stirred by more mundane signs and wonders.
For many years when I was employed in NYC’s child welfare department, I worked at 80 Lafayette St., a few blocks south of Canal Street. Every Thursday, I would spend my lunch hour heading over to the Lower East side for some food shopping (kosher food not being as easy to locate as now). My itinerary always included Bistritsky’s, which in addition to having a selection of kosher cheese which you could have sliced as you waited, a rare refinement in the 1970’s and 80’s, contained a bewildering, almost infinite assortment of kosher products crammed onto some very finite shelves. Then I would walk half a block down Essex St. and turn onto Hester St. to go to Gertel’s. There must have been a family called Gertel who opened this bakery in 1914, but during the time frame under discussion, the store was run a small man of indeterminable age whose concentration camp tattoo on his arm was unmistakable. During most of the year, the store functioned as a normal kosher bakery, stocking challas, rye breads, cakes, and pastries of all kinds. Twice a year, at Pesach and Rosh Hashana, the store turned into a shine of sorts. People from all over the tri-state area would descend on to the L.E.S., just as the swallows return to Capistrano every March. While on a normal Thursday, you would walk into Gertel’s, wait a few minutes for your number to be called, and negotiate your order, during the two weeks before Rosh Hashana, people would line up patiently, fifty or more people at a time, down the block to get their challas I assume that they took them home and froze them). In order to maintain order, the proprietor (if I ever knew his name, I have long forgotten it) would stand by the door and let in his customers ten at a time. As you passed him in the entrance, he would shake your hand and, with a twinkle in his eye and a sense of seriousness (which probably came from being where a shofar or a challah was only a fantasy), wish you a shana tova with as much warmth and emotion as any man could muster. Inside the store, the menu was pared down to a bare minimum: no rye bread, no black and white cookies, just sponge and honey cakes and challot for the holiday: with or without raisins, an eight inch size and a twelve inch size. Challot by the hundreds, filling every shelf in the store, racks and racks of more challot everywhere in the store, all out of the oven less than an hour, too warm to place immediately into plastic bags. And when I shook this man’s hand and saw with my own two eyes this array of challot, then and only then did I KNOW that Rosh Hashana was fast approaching.
There came a time when the proprietor sold the store to others, and the shop on Hester St. near Essex with its original faded sign survived until just before we made aliyah in 2007. Here in Jerusalem in 2008, I was on a different kind of line the Sunday before the holiday. I was trying to get into the Central Bus Station in the midst of a crush of people trying to maneuver past one security check point and then a conveyor belt to inspect your luggage. It was extremely crowded, perhaps with people traveling early before the holiday. The thing was, I wasn’t going anywhere – except maybe the WC! I just had to go up to the ticket booths on the third floor to buy monthly bus passes for me and for Barbara. I finally made it up to there, waited my turn on another line, and greeted a woman of indeterminable age behind the counter with my usual mantra: “hofshi hodshi, paamaim, m’Maale Adumim, b’pensia” (a monthly bus pass, two of them, from Maale Adumim, with the senior citizen discount.) So far so good. I gave her my credit card, she startd the transaction, and then asked for our telephone number (which serves as our account number into the computer system where she verifies that we are on record as being Alte Kockers and entitled to the discount). No problem: “efes, steim, hamesh, tesha, efes, echad, hamesh, shalosh, arba. As I began rattling off the numbers in Hebrew, I noticed the clerk’s lips begin to quiver, break into a grin, and then, although she tried to suppress it, start giggling. I said to her in mock dismay, “Don’t laugh at my Hebrew” (one gets used to having people laugh at your Hebrew here). She composed herself, and with a twinkle in her eye said to me helpfully in heavily accented English: “We have an expression here in Israel, shana tova.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I had heard that expression once or twice in America, so I just politely replied, “shana tova.” I took my passes, turned around, and retraced my steps out of the tachanah mercazit. Even with everything going on around me, then and only then did I KNOW that Rosh Hashana was on its way.
This year, both Natania and Tina would be home, as well as one of Tina’s friends. I had already purchased seats for everyone (a hundred shekels a pop, plus 240 shekels for membership, and a portion of the 3000 shekel building fund – cheap by American standards). The problem was that I had only four Rosh Hashana machzors for the five of us.(Mussar Avicha being a not so heavily endowed establishment, one is better off bringing a prayer book of one’s own, unless you want one of the ones in Russian that nobody wants.) The simple solution would be (gasp) to buy another one, but that would run contrary to my fervently frugal nature. It happens that we do have an extra machzor, one that is never used. It is part of a set of prayer books that Barbara bought when she was in Israel in 1967-8, inscribed and given as a bar mitzvah gift to her brother Phillip. Seven years later, when her brother was killed driving a car across country, these machzorim returned to Barbara’s possession, and we still have them. So the simplest solution would be for me to take this one and leave the newer, more user-friendly ones for everyone else.
There I was, the first day of Rosh Hashana, sitting in Mussar Avicha, trying to use this machzor. I began to remember why this machzor was never used. I had the sense that this machzor was printed by an old man who could not see as well as he used to in his half-lit basement in Tel Aviv on an ancient printing press, a holdover from his great grandfather. The print was uneven with some Hebrew letters unidentifiable; the ‘vav’ was particularly problematic, often looking like a ‘yud’ so that ‘Torah’ became ‘Tira.’ Sometimes, the letters weren’t even on a straight line. Everything was smushed together, one line running into another, as if the davening was one long, continuous prayer, particularly problematic if you had to find your way in the middle. The few instructions on the Hebrew pages were in Yiddish. And most problematic was the nusach (the arrangement of the prayers). There was stuff that I had never seen before, even in the “many congregations omit the following prayers” section of the seemingly all-inclusive ArtScroll version. After a little intensive research, I found out that the nusach used was one found only in three small villages in the East Carpathian Mountains, where in a fit of piety they would begin davening at 2AM and continue without interruption for twelve hours. The English translation was particularly interesting, with novel interpretations throughout, including an explanation of the Jewish fascination with Chinese food which began early in our history: “The memorial of the good woks of the ancient patriarch (/Abraham) whom thou didst raise up from the east…………” I had the sense that this translation was done by someone whose native tongue was Kurdish, but who had memorized the King James Version, who handed his work to someone who knew no English at all for typesetting. All around me, Mussar Avicha being a shul with lots of Anglos, sensible people were using ArtScroll or similar machzorim (You can make the argument that theArtScroll series represents the strengths of American Jewry: logically and clearly laid out, easy to read, easy to follow – even for someone with limited Hebrew. But I am always wondering what value the series will have in 100 years. My parents inherited a German-Hebrew Bible from my mother’s cousin Ludwig, one of many relatives who made it out of Germany in the 1930’s. It was beautifully done, and I know it was very useful in the nineteenth century when it was printed. But now? How many Jews today read that language? Even Samson Raphael Hirsch’s work survives only in translation. We can only guess how many Jews will speak English as their first language in another 100 years.)
At Mussar Avicha, we have no professional help with the High Holiday davening. (Larry Yudkowitz, where are you?) Selected members lead the davening. The first day, a new oleh, a guy a little bit younger than me, with an American pronunciation and melodies, was the sheliach tzibbor for mussaf . The second day, a younger Israeli was sent up to bat. His voice was not as good as the first guy, but the tunes he chose were more familiar to the congregation, so there was more singing from the congregation. But in the middle of mussaf, my attention was distracted and I looked out the window.
I am one of these strange people who notices cats wherever they are. If I were at the Grand Canyon and there were a cat at the bottom, I would first see the cat. So when I looked out the window at our shul, I saw a cat. The cat, in this case, was not alone. He or she came with a person and three large dogs tied to a gate. The person was a woman of indeterminate age who was sitting on a stone railing outside the shul. She was wearing dungarees and had a large sky-blue shawl wrapped around her head. She was not sitting there idly; she had a machzor and was praying with much fervor. Occasionally, she would lift her eyes from her machzor and cast them towards the heaven, a look of rapture on her face, with the feline arching its back around her legs. For these holidays, I am assigned a seat in a different section from where I normally sit. My temporary neighbor is a young fellow Anglo named Binyamin who makes his living repairing appliances. I nudged him and pointed to this unusual sight. He looked and responded to me: “Only in Israel.” When it is time for shofar blowing, a few of the men open the windows, so that anyone outside can hear (there are always a few moms davening while rocking strollers), although our shofar blower, Mordechai B. blows with such force that you could probably hear him outside even with the windows closed. The indeterminable aged woman arose and sprang to attention, a member of G-d’s army. Perhaps someday, I will begin to approach this woman’s intensity, her level of kavanah. As for now, I can walk, if I had to, from our home a little bit east of Yerushalayim past the canion, out the entrance to Maale Adumim, onto the main road, past the checkpoint, past Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus, and from there to the Old City and the Temple Mount, believed to be the site of Mount Moriah, where it all began with a ram caught in a bush. It is amazing where your feet, mind, and spirit can lead you if you follow their instructions.