Worse Ways to Go

Morning after the epiphany. Unlike my acid trips, the lesson stays with me.

 

I was wracked by guilt. I’d woke up on Yom Kippur and eaten. And it wasn’t just that I’d eaten, and didn’t fast, but what I ate. Bacon and waffles.

My wife said I should go to late afternoon and evening services culminating the Day of Atonement. I’d been the night before to Kol Nidre, the opening service. I took her advice.

The venue this year was a Methodist church. I guess the Adult Center kicked us out. The temple itself hasn’t got the space to accommodate all the mostly unaffiliated, nonpracticing Jews who during High Holy Days crawl out of the assimilationist woodwork to get right with God. I dusted off the Johnston & Murphy shoes, put on black Dockers and a dress shirt I hadn’t worn since my teaching days, and drove to the church.

There, I found myself deep in a sublime meditation. After worrying that the service would be boring, that I’d gut it out en route to a hard-bitten self cleansing, I became filled with the feeling that I was fortunate, lucky, privileged beyond all accounting to be here. Sitting with my prayer book or standing to sing a prayer, I was in this zone, a place of gratitude, humility, and infinite patience.

It went on for two and a half hours. Yes, toward the end I was weary, but fulfilled, at least within the confines of what is, unavoidably, a rather gloomy, reflective day. I remembered being equally full of stamina during my time as a member of the choir, when I had, so to speak, something to do.

The prayer book was not the old siddur we used at B’rith Shalom. That had something to do with it. I don’t remember if it was during the memorial service, Yiskor, or the concluding service, Neilah, but a passage, in English, addressed the fleeting moment we have on earth, how so many of our fondest, most fervent hopes are buried with us. It reminded me of Shakespeare, of Macbeth’s despairing speech, in its transcendence and profundity.

I used to think I was nervous. Maybe once I was. I am not now.

But others around me are. I get it a lot at AA meetings, punks just trying to stay out of jail, rich kids from Long Island, texting on their laps and waiting for it to be over, jittery feet, can’t sit still.

This afternoon I took a seat along a side section slanted in toward the makeshift bimah. Quietly on my own (my wife’s not Jewish), I wanted to be out of the way. I was on the aisle, the end nearer the risen stage on which rabbi, excellent singing soloist, and pianist were stationed.

After a while a man and a woman, and other people, took seats to my left. In time an usher came by to make us close ranks, eliminating empty seats to make two-seat openings for pairs. As people moved down, I found myself standing next to some guy I didn’t know.

He hoarsely whispered, “Great. Closer together so when the nazis show up we’ll be easier to kill.”

I tried to abbreviate the sotto voce. Yes, I’d read about the attempted murder at a German synagogue. “Good thing cops stopped it before it could happen,” I hissed, to end the thing.

He had a prayer shawl in an embroidered sack but never took it out. He emanated unhappiness. Though not a huge man, he positioned his legs in a way that seemed to be trying to move me out into the aisle, as if he needed extra space to breathe, the room lacking air for him.

I moved over, trying to concentrate on the agenda and marshal a singing voice compromised by years of Marlboro Reds and lingering asthma. Back to my praying and reading and singing and sitting and standing, I realized the man pressing to my left was not participating. I wondered if he was scared, categorically opposed to Jews congregating to make themselves easy targets, though at every one of the temple’s services there is an armed police officer. I could feel him twitching and gasping for air. And I realized he was standing not directly in front of his chair, facing forward, like every other congregant, but toward me! Why was this man staring at my ear? Then I realized he was facing the door, the back of the room, the place of entry — and escape from the torture chamber of being here.

I inched further to the right. Soon I found myself out in the aisle.

Toward the end of the marathon service – for it is long, no question – I forgot about being nice and did what I’d been trying to avoid doing. I stepped clear across the aisle to get away from this annoying and intrusive presence. I took my place in front of one of the chairs placed around tables where congregants would break the fast.

I glanced across the aisle back to where I’d been. The big baby wasn’t there; he’d moved out to mill around for a spell. I had a clear shot at the woman I took to be his wife. She glanced at me, a look of shame and sympathy. She was a lot tougher than he was. Clutching her book, on her feet facing the music, she was a zealot. I smiled back.

Yom Kippur is about begging God to forgive you for your shortcomings. I took my medicine.

When the service ended, I made for the door. It didn’t seem right to “break the fast” with everybody. I hadn’t fasted.

I thanked the cop at the entryway for being here and hit the door, swiped off my head the black, nondescript yarmulke I’d got at Berkowitz Kumin funeral home in Cleveland, and headed to my car and drove home. I left off Outlaw Country or Underground Garage or Howard Stern. I wanted to relish the moment I’d been in.

Watching the new season of Peaky Blinders as I devoured a sandwich and a Klondike bar, I considered what it takes to make a man of integrity, a mensch. I’ve got a lot of work to do, but I haven’t done as badly as I’d thought.

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