On the High Holy Days, we all become authors. We look back on the past year, recalling our good deeds and misdeeds, and look forward to a New Year when we write the next chapter in our Book of Life. During the Ten Days of Awe-someness, the traditional liturgy assures us that teshuvah – return, tefilla, reflection and tzedakah – righteous acts of justice will ensure a year of meaning, and purpose, belonging and blessing. The rabbis had a name for this process: cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul.
When I sat down to write my new book, The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses (Jewish Lights Publishing), I looked back on my entire experience, recalling stories that, when added up, amount to a ledger of life lessons learned and taught. It is said writers write what they know. We teachers teach what we have learned. Writing a memoir and publishing it for all to see is a kind of public cheshbon ha-nefesh, a life review that is at once terrifying and thrilling.
Even as a child in Omaha, Nebraska, I knew the High Holy Days were special. Every year, my parents bought my brothers Bob and Doug and me new clothes for the New Year. A new fruit graced our Rosh Hashana table. The synagogue was packed with people. Families gathered for holiday meals featuring round challah, apples dipped in honey, and taiglach, an incredibly delicious sticky tower of small dough balls, held together with nuts and honey, a kind of Jewish croquembouche.
But it was Yom Kippur that made the greatest impression on me.
Rushing through a pre-fast meal (easy on the salt), we would race to the synagogue to find seats in time for Kol Nidrei. We entered through the back vestibule, which was lined with memorial plaques with the names of dearly departed. Next to each name was a small light bulb, which was usually turned on only on the anniversary of the person’s death. But on Yom Kippur night, every single light bulb was illuminated, creating an eerie glow that filled the sanctuary with the memory of souls we loved. The aura it created was one of mystery and spirituality.
To this day, I love Yom Kippur. Among all the yearly holidays, it is my favorite. There is something absolutely transformative about the 25 hours, the climax of ten days of reflecting on my life and my purpose, a period of confronting existential fears: “Who shall live, who shall die?” and the empowering hope that the coming year be one of good health and blessing.
On Yom Kippur, I am just a little lower than the angels. In fact, all of the spiritual practices of the day are designed to help me focus on my soul, not my body — to elevate me from my animal existence to something higher. On Yom Kippur, I spend almost the entire day in the synagogue immersed in prayer, study, and reflection. I fast all day. I don’t wear leather, a sign of luxury, so it’s canvas sneakers to shul. I don’t bathe, shave or wear cologne. I don’t have intimate relations with my spouse. She doesn’t mind because I don’t bathe, shave or wear cologne.
A neighbor of mine goes one step further: he wears a white robe called a kittel. It’s not actually a robe; it’s a burial shroud. All of this is designed for one purpose: to encourage a personal audit of the soul, an accounting that can lead to transformation, to change, to renewal. Taken seriously, it can be a time to confront our fears and to renew our hopes.
But, then, at the end of Yom Kippur, I join the millions of other hungry Jews for a “break-fast.” As a kid, our family tradition was to break the fast with orange juice. In Los Angeles, I break the fast with a quick trip to my frozen yogurt place (I eat frozen yogurt just about every day). Many people have a special food or drink to celebrate the transition from the fast to the fastest meal of the year.
In Omaha, the most coveted break-fast invitation is to my cousin’s Don and Nancy Greenberg. More than one hundred people are invited to their beautiful home, most arriving famished from the Yom Kippur fast, eager to enjoy the incredible feast prepared by the Greenbergs.
The feast features many delicacies – Nancy’s homemade blintzes, Pam’s strudel, Margo’s version of “Bubbie’s Cookies.” But, for thirty years, the major food attraction is the smoked fish flown in from Barney Greengrass – the Sturgeon King in New York City. For landlocked Jews in Omaha, the Nova lox, whitefish, and pickled herring in cream sauce are quite a treat. Once I introduced Nancy to the pleasures of pickled lox in cream sauce (a marinated filet of salmon smothered in sweet cream and sweet onions – my favorite food ever!), she added this meychel (delightful food) to the order from Barney’s. Suffice it to say, everyone lucky enough to snare an invitation to the Greenberg’s blowout Yom Kippur Break Fast enjoys the permission to, excuse the expression, pig out on fish.
Once I was visiting New York City on business and arranged to have a meeting at Barney Greengrass on 86th and Amsterdam. After lunch, I went to the front counter to pay the bill (cash only!). Sitting behind the register was a portly elderly man, dressed in a white open-collar shirt, with his head down, concentrating on the pile of bills and orders spread out on the counter. I later learned this was the irascible Moe Greengrass, the second generation owner of Barney’s. Hoping to engage him in conversation despite his obvious concern with the business at hand, I said:
"Hey, I’m visiting from Los Angeles, but you may know my cousins from Omaha – Don and Nancy Greenberg.”
When he heard these names, Moe slowly, slowly, slowly lifted his head, looked me straight in the eye and, with the deadpan expression of an expert comedian, said two words:
The goal of Yom Kippur.
The purpose of the frightful, awe-full, and challenging moments when we face up to our fears, our frailties, both physical and spiritual, and hope to come out renewed on the other side.
May the new year be one of goodness, sweetness and blessing.
Dr. Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University. He will be performing stories from his new book, The Best Boy in the United States of America: A Memoir of Blessings and Kisses at Temple Emanu-El’s Skirball Center on October 20, 7 p.m., co-sponsored by The Jewish Week and Jewish Lights Publishing; registration now open at http://emanuelskirballnyc.org. Sample chapter and videos at drronwolfson.com