by Suzanne Chait-Magenheim (New York, NY)
A funny thing happened on my way to temple this past Rosh Hashanah in my hometown of Manhattan. I arrived and the synagogue was not there! As I crossed Park Avenue directly in front of what used to be a lavish edifice, I saw it was covered with construction debris and fenced off. Some New Year! I wanted God to put me in a good place when he wrote in his Book of Life. I did not expect he would put me in the Twilight Zone.
Let me backtrack a little bit. My husband had his knee replaced three weeks earlier, so we did not take our usual trip to our Florida home to celebrate the High Holy Days where we are members of a Reform temple that my spouse enjoys because of the sincere warmth and musicality of the staff. Their rhythmic swaying to the music keeps him from dozing off during the service. Usually.
I was happy to join any temple, Reform or Conservative, as a versatile human being. Although I was raised as a child in the Orthodox tradition (not to be confused with the Chasidic with their long curls, long skirts, and joyful dancing), I could be pragmatic in this case, although the playing of instruments on the Sabbath irked me a little. Being Orthodox as a child meant not being able to cut out my paper dolls on Saturdays. Not being able to drive to temple. Dining from “milchig” and “fleishig” dishes (dairy separate from meat}, and using colorful plates on Passover.
Last year, due to other health issues that should not surprise normal seniors, my husband and I took advantage of the reciprocal policy of exchanging holiday tickets between like-minded denominations, a nice honored custom, and we made a contribution to the host synagogue. So I arranged for the same this year.
I should say here that I used to find the sale of tickets for the High Holy Days offensively expensive. The first time I discovered that tickets were sold for admission so Jews could absolve themselves of sin and thank God for his goodness was years ago in Manhattan. I was 25 and still normally attended my parents’ synagogue in upstate New York on most holidays. It was 1972, and I tried to attend a neighborhood synagogue sans ticket on Rosh Hashanah, but left sobbing and sputtering, “I can’t believe you would turn away a fellow Jew on the holiest days of the year.”
They would, and could, and did. They could care less. I was so financially naïve then. To learn the greedy ways of the world on Rosh Hashanah was a shock to my young system. But I see now it is how the institutions raise funds to maintain the everyday running of a school and so many other community offerings.
So, it is the morning of Rosh Hashanah in 2017, or 5778 in Jewish years, and, having overslept, I hurriedly dressed, gave my husband his painkillers, ate a quick and proper Weight Watchers 7-point breakfast, and donned a little silk dress and low heels to honor the tradition of dressing up conservatively nice for synagogue. I walked the six blocks as quickly as possible in the slightly uncomfortable but appropriate shoes after a summer of sandals.
When I saw there was no entrance, I started to walk to the next street and telephoned my husband to ask him the address, hoping I had the wrong street. What would I do if I could not begin the year admitting my few sins and asking for forgiveness so my loved ones and I could live another year!
In another block and a half, I thought I had discovered my goal when I saw a bunch of Jews–women in black heels and suits, men in black, blue, or purple yarmulkes and matching talleisim–standing in a line and being asked for tickets. The five security guards were a definite clue. I asked if this was the temple I was looking for but was told it was not. I asked to speak to someone in charge to see if they knew where my missing temple was or if I could possible go to this one.
A lovely gentleman in authority came to the rescue and said the right thing: “Why don’t you join us? No Jew should be turned away on the High Holy Days!” Bingo! Some of the world had morally evolved in the right direction since 1972. I thanked this “savior,” so to speak, and profusely offered a contribution, which he said was up to me, and which I mailed a few days later (as my mother had taught me that I was not to handle money on the High Holy days, which I sometimes adhere to). He handed me a prayer book and guided me to an available seat.
It turned out this was a Conservative temple, which rented extra space for a large congregation on the Jewish holidays. The room was certainly not beautiful, but it was in an appropriate, large room with the requisite torahs, bima, rabbi, and cantor. I had arrived just on time to hear the blowing of the shofar, the strange mournful bellow that has many meanings: welcoming the New Year, calling us to prayer, beseeching God for peace on earth and in Jerusalem, and, of course, welcoming me to this new experience.
As it turned out, it wasn’t so new. I had attended a Conservative synagogue following the Orthodox one at the age of six after moving away from my grandparents, thereby gaining more religious freedom (like the freedom to consume Chinese food and eventually lobster). I had been bat mitzvahed following a year of special study and five years of Hebrew school. So I was quite comfortable adding my weak soprano voice to the Hebrew melodies I knew well.
I had previously been disappointed that the Reform services had altered the traditional melodies, even “Adon olam.” In this temple it was back to standing a whole lot when the Torah was removed from the Ark and praying in Hebrew rather than in an English responsive reading, as was prevalent in the Reform temple. This temple reminded me of the days I couldn’t wait to join my Dad in melodious prayer at the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service as the tedious fast ended before returning home to lox and bagels, tuna fish salad, scrambled eggs, herring, and chocolate milk for me.
At this new service, people pleasantly smiled at me as we exchanged a few words. I felt at home and quite comfortable. As the rabbi began his sermon, he spoke of the greeting “L’Shana Tova” which means not “happy new year,” but a “good new year.” This was his opening to discuss the importance of showing goodness and virtue to our community. He suggested that the oldest people in the world lived in communities for good fellowship and friendship and lots of socializing. Daily friendships are more important than large, loving families …”in another state!” Dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine and other chemicals in the body have been tested to prove this, he said.
My attendance was such a perfect example of what he spoke of, and I was grateful for the way that his little Jewish community had welcomed me into their ‘flock,” so to speak. I read some prayers to myself in English that I found meaningful and touching. I was comfortable in this little “shtetl.” Sometimes Fate, your appointment in Samara, (or could it be Divine Intervention?) is a lovely thing blessed with goodness and kindness.
A few days later, so that I would know where I was to go on Yom Kippur, I walked back to the original temple that I had been seeking. It had occurred to me that the entrance was in the back, not easily visible or accessible from the street. And so, it was. To which, I say: “Let there be light”…..or at least a visible sign!
Thankfully, I was not abandoned to roam the dusty streets of Manhattan for 40 years.
Before becoming a “snowbird” in Florida, Suzanne Chait-Magenheim, LCSW, lived most of her adult life in Manhattan. A graduate of Skidmore College, she became a psychotherapist with a private practice as a clinical social worker and with psychoanalytic certification. Her recent poem, “56 Years” appears online at the Alzheimer’s Association website. A few years ago, she wrote, edited, and photographed a monthly government newsletter, School Health Highlights.