God vacations over the summer. School’s out, beaches are in. Long days of sun and surf, ice cream and jump rope out on the street, staying up late in the lasting sunlight. No school. No homework. No cold dark early-morning waking up to hours of soul sucking Hebrew class.
But He returns with a vengeance in September, making up for all that lost time. That’s when he sits on his throne, ledgers opened, quills sharpened, defense and prosecuting angels to his right and left presenting arguments for and against our continued existence.
The trial lasts for ten days. The Days of Awe in the middle bookended by Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. Days of serious contemplation and equally serious rituals. Apples dipped in honey for a sweet new year. Change dutifully slipped through the slots of the “pishka,” so similar to a piggy bank, but so different, prominent on the kitchen counter. And strangest and most weird, on the morning of the eve of Yom Kippur, my siblings and I collecting before my father as he waves his hand over our head, his fist clutching the change that would be given to charity in redemption for our lives. Some friends’ parents actually used a live chicken for their Koproress, as this ritual was called, which I understood to mean “instead of.” Our souls were redeemed for a handful of change or a chicken carcass.
The worst of it – I knew this because it was drilled into us in that dreary, scary Hebrew class where we sat terrified and bored for hours and hours every morning, was that even if you squeaked by, because you were still a kid and therefore not responsible for your shitty little soul, your sins could, would, impose an untimely death on others. Fathers would die for the sins of the child.
That Yom Kippur I’d spent the entire day outside, well sated on snacks and drinks, away from the ever- watchful eyes of adults sequestered inside the house of worship. Eight-year-olds didn’t have fast, I’d have four more years of reprieve. The day flew by, the sky eventually turning from blue to gray. Wasted and dirty from climbing over fences and down alleyways, knees and elbows skinned by brushes against unforgiving brick walls, I was exhausted.
At sunset I finally made my way into the inner sanctum of the synagogue, working my way down the aisle of the men’s section, another indulgence of my youth that would be forbidden to me in a few years’ time. The pews were filled with men covered in prayer shawls, shaking and bending toward the east, where the opened ark allowed a peek at the sacred Torah scrolls within. This was last call, Neilah, all the prayers uttered, exhausted fists resting from the ongoing blows delivered to chests swollen with hearts laden with sins: the sin of gossip, the sin of lust, the sin of greed. Each intoned, acknowledged, and repented before the All-Knowing.
God, gracious God, forgiving and compassionate, patient and abounding in kindness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgive me, absolve me, allow me one more year of grace.
Then the last desperate peal of the shofar, the closing of the ark.
Next Year in Jerusalem.
If there will be a next year.
I approached my father, always among the last to leave, savoring more precious minutes in His presence. He folded his tallis, kissing it before placing it in its blue velvet bag, trimmed with silver threaded embroidery. His foul breath reached all the way to where I stood, day old hunger and thirst breath, pasty and pale skin even beneath dark day-old stubble.
“Daddy?” my voice tentative, images of myself butterflying about all day, “You never left shul? All day?”
Eyebrows etched into wrinkly folds lifted over tired eyes. “Simchick, nu’veden? It’s Yom Kippur.”
He handed me his tallis bag, granting me the honor of carrying it home. I accepted it, deeply aware of being unworthy. Still ignorant of my vile nature Daddy held my free hand and hummed the entire walk home, tunes from the davening I’d missed. There a feast awaited us, sweet noodle kugel, bagels and lox, orange juice and cakes. I wasn’t hungry.
Later that night I tossed and turned. The shofar had blown, the gates to the heavenly courtroom where the enthroned Almighty sat with his ledgers and angels were sealed, the final accounting stamped.
Clammy inside pajamas soaked with my sweat, I prayed. Too late, but I prayed. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Too late. Already a third grader I knew better. And He knew best of all.
There was no hope for me.
But could my father be spared?