For the 10 days beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, the Lord, God of Israel, weighs the souls of the Jewish people on scales that defy mathematical calculation. Sitting upon His heavenly tabernacle before His giant accounting tablets, he decides who shall live and who shall die, who shall be sick and who shall flourish, who shall prosper and who shall decline, who shall lose their fortunes and who shall sit in the sunshine and eat baked bagels.
When I was a child, my home, usually humming with debate, argument and laughter, would be transformed by this time into a solemn sanctuary marked by prayerful memory and theatrical displays of self-abnegation. At the dinner table, my family would sit in rapt silence, feeling His Eyes upon us as we meditated upon the baseness of our petty lives. My Bubbah, the devout, would accelerate the frequency of her silent prayers, praising those whom she usually compared to various forms of unintelligible livestock. Her daughter, my ailing mother, would weep openly, remembering her father killed 10 days before the Liberation. I would reflect on the debilitating illness that was my mother's bitter fate; while my father, the eternal pragmatist, the sole survivor of his entire family, would carry on as usual, imagining the Nameless One as an entrepreneurial presence who could not be fooled by temporal acts of generosity and insincere repentance.
"Who's kidding whom?" he would shout at my Bubbah after she would ask him to call our Tante Hellah to wish her a Happy New Year. Tante Hellah had married Bubbah's brother Moishe after the war and seemed to have spent all the time since then eating Barton's chocolates in bed. Resultantly, our Bubbah spent her free time travelling in gypsy cabs to Manhattan, bringing jars of gefilte fish and matzoh ball soup to Moishe so he wouldn't die of starvation. Whenever she came home, she would curse the day that she had arranged the match. At the time, it had seemed a perfect arrangement. Uncle Moishe had survived the Milchumeh with his adolescent son David. He needed a wife, and Hellah, the wealthy spinster daughter of the finest family in their town, needed a husband. But it didn't take long for my Bubbah to discover that Hellah was the perfect name for someone who was a selfish donkey and the step-child of Satan. Yet, during the Days of Awe, she still tried to get over herself by employing my father as her détente misisonary.
"Please, Fisheleh," she would beg my father, calling him by his Yiddish name, "phone up the conceited fat cow and wish her good health and happiness for the New Year."
"Elka, do you really believe that with one telephone call, the Holy One is going to forgive you for cursing Hellah's survival?" my father would laugh, amazed by the miracle of healing that flourished in the heart of my taciturn Bubbah.
"Sure," she would murmur, raising her eyes to heaven, drawing Yahweh's attention to her vigil.
My father would make the call and Bubbah would get on the phone and lavish her apologies on Hellah. Then they would reminisce about the happy times and my Bubbah would promise to visit her after the High Holidays, but by then her good will would have faded and Uncle Moishe would be starving once again. But the moment she hung up that telephone, she would weep with relief, cleansed by the fulfilled ritual of repentance and forgiveness.
This attempt to do good and to see the good in others even affected my cynical father. On the first days of the New Year, we would walk together to synagogue. By the time we arrived at the sanctuary, his skepticism would fall away like an unnecessary layer of clothes. Fixing his silken yarmulkeh, he would remove his tallit from its embroidered velvet satchel, kiss its fringes, then sweep its silken length over his shoulders like a set of detachable wings. Shrouded by the white prayer shawl, he would begin to shukkle, rocking back and forth to the cadence of supplication which was as much a part of him as his good eyes, his bad stomach and his brilliant mind.
For the last years of his life, my father, as a former president of his Long Island congregation, was granted the supreme honor of carrying the Torah during the recitation of the Kol Nidre. Composed by a holy master during one of the many Inquisitions where Jews were forced to renounce their Maker or die, Kol Nidre declares the opening of heaven's gates to the cries of the Jewish people; its sacred stanzas calling for the penitent to renounce prior renunciations and return to the Holy One as clean and white as newborn lambs. Its plea is so holy that it is sung three times to allow latecomers to share in its singular opportunity for renewal. Thus starts the holiest 24 hours of the Jewish calendar, the last and only time during the year that a Jew can alter his fate.
During the last years of his life, my father, broken down by illness, barely able to carry a cup of tea from the kitchen to the den, would stand beside the rabbi and cantor on the bima during the chanting of this blessed prayer, cradling the hallowed Torah in his arms. Watching his face, gray with illness, I wondered how he could summon the strength to bear such a weight. I feared that he would drop the hand-written scroll, an offense so terrible, its punishment is worse than death. When I asked him how he managed not to waver, he told me that he felt well in synagogue, heartened by the Divine Presence and the singing of a community he once believed would be vanquished by genocide. It was this hope, this prayer, which had kept him alive during the war and gave him the strength to bear all the disappointments and tragedies of his life.
Last year during the Days of Awe, I was asked by a friend what I meant when I described my father's life as a prayer. At first, I belittled his question, acting as if I didn't understand what he was talking about. Then I realized that even though I had often mocked my family's annual High Holiday repentance, I had carried on the tradition, making sure that during the 10 days of awe I accomplish acts of charity, forgiveness and repentance. Most years, if I am on the East Coast, I visit the gravesite where my parents and Bubbah are buried and attempt to make peace with disconsolate relatives. I make up with true friends who accidentally hurt my feelings through acts of self-aggrandizement, neglect and unwanted pity. I try to shed my grandiose desires for stock market killings and a watershed book auction and reflect on the rewards of my existence -- love, family, prosperity, health and the ability to make a difference in my community. I look forwards to Tashlich, the ritual service where I can throw away my sins as scraps of bread to the ducks in the water. In one afternoon, I can forgive myself my jealousies, my penchant for gossip and the grudges I nurture in the darkness like rare, delicate orchids. In this time, I can let go of the shattering disappointments that haunt my dreams: the painful, protracted deaths of both my parents, the novel that took me an eternity to write and was casually dismissed before it faded into oblivion, the children I lost through miscarriage and might never have. I do all these things, but it still feels self-conscious, unnatural, forced. Trying to live my life as a prayer, I feel the Eyes of the Higher Power upon me, laughing at my inadequacy. My acts of goodness seem slight and hopeless compared to the saintly deeds of those who live their lives as self-sacrifice. Did I volunteer to fly to Dili to work in the U.N. refuge to save the besieged East Timorese? Did I fly to Moldavia to help the flight of the refugees? Did I go to India to rescue those buried by earthquake? Who am I? Why do I bother to pray at all?
Perhaps by carrying on my family tradition of repentance during the Days of Awe, I simply sustain the hopes that kept my beleaguered people buoyant for generations. My father, in his darkest despair, would recite two axioms to me over and over: Without hope, there is no existence; and you can only do what you can do. Trying to do good and see the good in others is what I can do, just as it is what my Bubbah could do when she made her annual peace with the dreadful Hellah. It was what my father could do when he prayed, even though he believed that his benedictions were only pleas. Whatever he asked for he received only in part, and it was never the part that he really wanted -- prosperity without celebration, survival without health, a wife who defied medical odds yet was unable to walk. Yet despite his personal disappointments, he never stopped accomplishing acts of mercy, humility, charity and philanthropy. He shlepped my mother to doctors all over the world, searching for her cure. He gave large amount of money to the Lodzer Men's Society and he supported Israel, the United Jewish Appeal and the HIAS service that sponsored his own passage to America. He never stopped hoping that things would improve and he didn't wait for a miracle. Instead, he relished the miracle of opportunity and even the promise proposed by failures that gave him the chance to try again. It was what he could do.
So for 10 days a year, I try to live my life as a prayer. I reflect on infinity, aware, as the psalmists, that life is a grain of sand and that I am powerless before the world. I realize that prayer is an act of humility and awe requiring constant refinement, renewal and reflection. It changes with experience and with time. As a child, I prayed for fame. As an adult, I pray for love. Mostly I pray to make a difference, to uphold yet renew my beloved religious and cultural traditions, to realize my potential, to not settle for less but to accept less when the impossible fails. Every time I enter a synagogu,e I'm moved to weep by song and prayer, feeling my father and mother and Bubbah's supplications holding me aloft, telling me not to give up for they never gave up even as they encountered genocide. Finally, I pray to accept what I do not understand, for it is often what I do not understand that I cannot let go of. And perhaps that acknowledgment of wonder is the essence of prayer after all.