It’s Erev Yom Kippur. I’m at work. I’m finding it difficult to focus on work. It’s my Elter Zeyde and namesake, R’ Yitzchak Amzel’s ז’ל (Bogushitzer) Yohr Tzeit. Tonight, on Yom Kippur, is my Zeyde, R’ Yehuda Balbin’s ז’ל Yohr Tzeit. Elwood Shule will be pretty much full. Just before כל נדרי I’ll be sitting on the Bima saying תפילה זכה. Only this time, it will be different.
In times gone by, people pass and shake my hand, wishing a גמר חתימה טובה and a גוט יום טוב. Some would peer into my מחזור to see what I was saying, and nod their head in acknowledgment. Then in Yiddish they would say
“Oy, תפילה זכה. I remember my father and zeyde saying this, with tears streaming down their foreheads. You can’t imagine the scene in Poland. The shule was overflowing and stifling. The air was electric and you could hear a pin drop. When the חזן started אור זרוע לצדיק we all trembled: man, woman and child.”
My father sang in the choir in the Chassidishe Shtiebl in Rawa. The בעל תפילה (not a חזן wearing a pointy white hat not intoning an operatic performance) was R’ Zishe Shoichet. הי’ד. Earlier that morning, the town was literally a mess after כפרות. Everyone rushed to R’ Zishe who would then Shecht the chickens, ostensibly for the poor. But who wasn’t poor? When a tired and awe-struck R’ Zishe cried out אור זרוע לצדיק the walls evinced shock and awe. Even the Maskil or Bundist would be at Shule, and they too would tremble before מלך מלכי המלכים.
Over the years, the remnants of that generation were liberally sprinkled among the pews. I remember when there were 40 or 50 people standing in aisles and at the door. I remember when there was even an overflow. This was the home of the survivor. This was a peek into their past. Yes, they drove to Shule (although those who had the strength avoided it on Yom Kippur or parked a distance away so that nobody would see that they were driving) but there they were, bedecked in a Tallis, and a tattered old Kapeloosh (fedora). Who wouldn’t come to Shule wearing a Kapeloosh? Comically, they would drive home wearing the Kapeloosh. But they were fasting. They were davening. It was Yom Kippur.
Someone always fainted (G’Chalished). They knew how to navigate a Machzor. They didn’t need Rabbi Artscroll’s English guide to tell them when to start, when to stop, when to sing or when to cry. It was imbued indelibly. There was nobody announcing page numbers. There wasn’t even a need to standardise on a single Machzor. You wouldn’t see one of those “new” fangled English Machzorim issued by the British Empire. There was Tabik (snuff) and smelling salts. By the afternoon, bad breath was the order of the day. Just before Yizkor, the Shule seemed to double in number. The air was electric. R’ Chaim Gutnick ז’ל mesmerised and enfranchised everyone: young and old, sick and healthy, man and woman. After Yizkor, when, as a boy, I’d return to the Shule proper to see men and women with red weeping eyes. Like a time warp, it looked as though they had travelled back into the bosom of their departed loved ones, and been touched on their foreheads.
The year after we were married, I was employed to daven in Wellington, New Zealand. It was a very English Shule (Routledge Machzor and all). No Piyutim were skipped. I had to say a separate Kel Moleh for each name on the Shule list. I can’t forget, though, the face of what seemed to be the only Poilishe Yid in the crowd. As I came down the steps exhausted from davening a Mussaf which finished at 5pm (they didn’t want a break because people might leave) an old yid, Mr Ryzman, in a tattered kapeloosh, smiled broadly revealing a motley set of teeth, and loudly said “Shekoyech”. I was later told that he rarely smiled, and had told others that he felt “in der heim”.
I didn’t think much of all this at the time. It just seemed so normal and expected. Fast forward. Tonight, I will do exactly what I have always done. Regrettably, there will be very few Yidden in a Kapeloosh. Instead, we will have a more modern array of psychedelic yarmulkes perched on coiffured heads bearing testament to attendance at a flashy Bar Mitzvah or the like. There will be page announcements and new innovative speeches designed to make sure that people remain interested. Woman somehow will have forgotten that it is customary to have a head covering; even those who didn’t have a fancy hat wore a white scarf.
But they are here. They have come. They have identified with their people.
ועמך כולם צדיקים
אנו מתירים להתפלל עם העברינים
Davening will be lonely. The singing won’t be spine tinglingly inclusive. I will wait for the עולם to say their bits in response to mine. Alas, there will be comparative silence and an eery feeling of emptiness will envelop me.
I’ve learned to cope emotionally somewhat, despite my perhaps extreme nostalgia, only by trying to daven in a more dispassionate way.
But it’s Yom Kippur. That doesn’t seem right, does it?