By Janis Fontaine
The holiest day of the Jewish year is approaching.
Yom Kippur, which starts the evening of Sept. 29, is a solemn day for reflection, a day of atonement. It follows 10 days after Rosh Hashana, which marks the new year.
But there are no out-of-control parties celebrating Rosh Hashana. The only similarity to Jan. 1 is that Jews will spend time examining their lives and planning changes for the coming months.
We asked some local folks to share their feelings about the High Holy Days. Here’s what they had to say:
As a kid, I used to spend the holidays with my grandparents in a little town in Slovakia. I never forget walking with my grandfather, holding his hand going to our little synagogue. I felt happy, secure and looking forward to meeting the other kids on the yard of the temple.
It was a great time and I often try to re-create that childhood memories in my mind. My grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz.
After the Holocaust, I grew up in a communist regime where going to temple was not a safe thing to do, but I know when the holidays were and fasting in Yom Kippur was important to me. Gave me the feeling that I am walking with my grandfather.
When people make New Year’s resolutions, it’s usually in some attempt at doing better the following year. So too, when we celebrate the High Holy Days, we try to embrace the idea of changing ourselves for the better, no matter how hopeless change might seem. This is done in a more serious manner during the holiday of Yom Kippur, which to me is an occasion where the Jewish people could in some way feel the presence of higher power in a timely manner, a connection only comparable to meditating on the very text of the Torah.
Why, then, do we give such attention to an occasion which other people would simply put off half the time? Because Yom Kippur is not about the future, it is of course about the past, and to see the past year go by in the mind’s eye is equivalent to seeing one’s life flash before your eyes.
Having such an experience is not only a transcendental way to let go of the past, it also encourages us to look to the future to redeem the mistakes we had made.
To go through such a major change during a single day is a miracle, and so when we feel this change happening in such a noticeable way, all we could help thinking is the beauty of change and hope for the remaining year.
Few memories, if any, kindle that special pang than reflecting upon those formative years, walking behind my parents with my two brothers, to shul on the High Holy Days.
I lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on an exclusively, by design, Jewish block when Brooklyn was Brooklyn. Belonging to an Orthodox shul, as almost all were in those treasured days, no one drove to Talmud Torah Beth Judah. Another cardinal sin would be a man without suit and tie … and women equally elegant upon Judgment Day.
My father, owing to his status as a major benefactor to the synagogue, as well as the recognized Talmud scholar that he was, enjoyed a prominent front-row seat in the special section abutting the eastern wall. My two brothers and I accompanied my father while my mother sat opposite on the far side of the mishits.
We were a traditional family. We were an observant family. We were a loving family. My father died in 1988 at the age of 73. Mom lived to 100. They live in my heart every day as luminaries to emulate. The High Holy Days bring for me tears of sorrow and tears of joy. I can so clearly see them now walking, together, heart-in-heart, followed by their three sons, ever so proud. How I miss those days.
But Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur endure. Our five children, their spouses and our eight grandchildren will have their memories.