As you may have surmised by this point, I am ambivalent about the High Holidays. However, as a child growing up in a warm heimish as well as emotionally nurturing environment, I have wonderful memories of this season. One of my earliest recollections was the incredible contrast between my shul and the other places of worship I’d pass on the long walk with my father and uncles when going and coming from our minyan. Going to shul one didn’t feel the contrast, but coming home from shul the differences were staggering
Our shul was more like a shteibel in its infancy stage. No Rabbi per say, but an abundance of lamdanim and talmedei chachamim, many of which were immigrants and survivors. No chazzan but many baalei tefillah, who brought with them, according to my father a touch of europishe nusach. Because there was no rabbi and chazzan, we made it through the tefillos at an impressive clip, somewhat like many of the hashkamah minyanim of today. The good news was there were no sermons. The better news was that we weren’t in shul until 2PM as many more substantial shuls were. The bad news was that in order to get home we’d have to pass a reform temple and a conservative synagogue. While to my father it wasn’t a big deal, to my uncle it was. He insisted that we not walk on the same side of the street because it was a makom tamei.
I looked forward to those walks home because many of the congregants would socialize outside during the yizkor tefllah and it was quite a sight. I enjoyed the atmosphere because it was festive, and everyone was dressed to kill. It was like walking thru Bloomingdales fragrance department. Even from across the street there was this reach nicoach that permeated the area. Men weren’t in discolored kittels, but wore their best suits with a highly glazed shine instead of dirty tennis shoes. To this day I have a hard time wearing tennis shoes with a suit! How do you reconcile standing before a king in a pair of worn tennis shoes - Al Achas Chama V’chama, the King of the Universe?
According to my father we had little in common with these yidden. These were three time a year Jews-not serious. We on the other hand were the hope and future of the Jewish people. We knew how to learn and daven. These people hadn’t a clue. But we did have something in common-we shared many of the same customs including the very popular one of absenting onerself from services if one’s parents were both alive.
When I pointed this out to my uncle who was constantly deriding these three time a year Jews, he pointed out to me that they were outside for a very different reason than when I was outside. My uncle maintained that they were standing outside because they couldn’t get into the shul even if they tried. It was too crowded inside and not from people. It was too crowded because the prayers that they were offering up, were not breaking through the shaarei shamaiyim. As a result there was, so to speak, a jam up, gridlock of the tefillos not getting out of the sanctuary and up to Hashem. Hashem wasn’t willing to accept their tefillos and as a result there was a stima that had to be unplugged. This could only happen if they did true teshuva and became frume yidden.
The fact of the matter, however, was besides them being good people and good Jews they had magic. Their rabbis and cantors officiated in beautiful and dignified white gowns and vestments, which were majestic in comparison to the skimpy cotton kittel that I was accustomed to see. When the “klei kodesh” went down on their knees and prostrated themselves during the Avodah that was something to see. It was a magical experience, theatrical and emotionally moving. One almost felt as if he was in the beis hamikdosh watching the priestly service. I know-I snuck in on many occasions. These were good Jews. What made them good Jews was that they identified with their people, history and tradition. They felt their Judaism in their kishkes, even if they didn’t put on tefilin shel rabbeinu tam. We don’t all practice Judaism the same way. We never have and we never will and no one but no one has a monopoly on truth and/or correct practice of Jewish custom and tradition.
As a matter of fact, just the custom of participating in a yizkor service is subject to different points of view. In many synagogues across America and Israel it is the custom to absent oneself at the time of the yizkor service if both parents are alive. In others, especially in Europe everyone in the community is expected to participate in the service-even if both parents are alive. The main reason we would absent ourselves has to do with superstition. Like everything else in Judaism, there is no consensus, but rather two points of view. One school believes that it is because of the ayin harah. An envious person may have the power to cast the evil eye upon the living parents. That however makes no real sense, because if that were a real consideration than a bar mitzvah boy’s parents should leave the shul when he is called for an aliyah, a bride shouldn’t be present at an auf rauf, nor should wealthy people attend services if the poor will be in attendance.
The other point of view maintains that one shouldn’t tempt fate by “opening ones mouth to the satan”, because one who remains in shul may inadvertently join in the yizkor recitation. However we believe that on Yom Kippur when we say yizkor, the satan is powerless. Furthermore, for those subscribing to the theory of satan, in our tradition he is subservient to hashem. On rosh Hashanah we are inscribed and on Yom Kippur our fate is sealed. Satan can’t really have any effect.
The bottom line is that whichever point of view you subscribe to, you absent yourself from the yizkor service. In so doing another custom going back to the days of the temple is followed-young men and young women searched a mate. It was a great mitzvah-and probably a great mixer, so much so that the rabbis instituted the reading of the torah portion at mincha regarding correct and appropriate sexual mores.
It’s good that we are a superstitious people, after all, what’s religion without a little superstition. Without a little superstition the entire “duchaning” service would lose its mystical aura and magical feeling. Why else are children lovingly tucked into their father’s tallesim and taught not to look at the priests during the “duchaning”. Superstitions are good for kids; it fits into their world and offers them plausible explanations for things otherwise not understood. As an adult I’ve laid the superstition aside, seeking understanding, and truth. Walking home from shul, pondering the riddles of Judaism, I no longer admire these three day a year Jews from a distance, nor do I cross the street but walk through the crowd wishing them a chag sameach.