“The foundation of our house is buckling,” says my usually silent father, sitting next to me in the front seat of my dusty grey station wagon. He holds on to the door handle as an added security measure. From the back seat, my mother quietly updates her Facebook status to “nature calls” as the three of us head toward the second day Rosh Hashanah services. Three, when once there were four.
The service would be held in a meadow, after a hike through Temescal Canyon Park. There are million ways to kneel and kiss the ground according to Rumi, and being in nature has always been our favorite. Still, winding down Sunset toward our outdoor temple, my fingers quietly strangle the steering wheel. I’m angry for being uptight which makes me more so. Plus, we’re late.
“It’s buckling in the hallway, right next to Robbie’s room,” my dad says, “where the office—your room—used to be.” He’s working something out, he says, he has a theory. I imagine the blueprints he must be drawing in his mind. And I remember our rooms.
“Have you talked to a contractor?” I say, already sure of his response. My mother looks up from her phone as my dad, who is legally blind, shakes his head no. “I think I’ll go under the house and see what’s happening for myself.”
The High Holidays and these 10 Days of Awe are meant to be a solemn time of reflection and repentance. We are supposed to consider all of our sins from the previous year and right and wrongs committed before Yom Kippur (aka Judgment Day). Based on our efforts, we’ll either have a good year, or we will die. So, no pressure.
As a child, these Days of Awe were more like days of angst. High holy days meant marathon prayer sessions at the Conservative synagogue down the street, a numb butt and an irrational desire to burst into flames. Every 15 minutes, I’d do a lap around the inside of the building: get a drink of water, visit the bathroom, open the double doors and quickly count the cars driving by, read the notices in the lobby, return to my seat, make up stories about the people sitting in front of me, and repeat. I didn’t understand the Hebrew and what I took from the few English translations was “Worship OR ELSE.” I was haunted by an imaginary Michelangelo-esque diety who inscribed my name in The Book of Life. The handwriting looked like my own, and G-d’s mighty, veiny hand held a pen over the page like a dagger, threatening to X me out. I imagined Him as strict as my father, and feared being punished for heinous crimes like pulling the head off my Barbie or teasing my little brother when he had the Chickenpox. Once, at temple, I threw up in the bathroom because I was afraid to come clean to my mom about taking a dollar from her purse for snacks at school. I figured if couldn’t get the nerve, I probably deserved to be sentenced to death.
Now, as we climb the hill at Temescal and take our seat in the meadow, I am ambivalent about it all. Bat Mitzvah, confirmation and Jewish wedding behind me, I am unquestionably a member of the tribe, but I am not what you would call a believer. I love the traditions of our culture but often feel disconnected from them. For years, I looked for my place in the Jewish landscape, and the closest I’ve gotten is where we are today, wearing white under a hamlet of trees in a sun dabbled stretch of grass, with the songs of our ancestors on our lips. And still, I feel disconnected. It’s not all Judaism’s fault. I feel disconnected because my parents are next to me and my mother is crying again.
The foundation of our house is buckling. Four years ago, my little brother fell off a roof in the middle of the night in Chicago, and was gone in an instant. I had talked to him two days before, on my son’s 6th birthday. He said I love you to us both and we said it back, having no idea it would be the last time. How would you ever know?
Robbie was the heart of our family; everyone’s favorite for all the right reasons. He was funny and silly and smart enough to keep his mouth shut when things got heated around the house. He was also the only person on the planet who shared my frame of reference, who knew the whole story. It was Robbie’s disarming kindness that lifted us up and brought us together as grown ups—four people not too much alike but bound by love. My brother’s absence has brought the three of us closer, if only because we each still long for his presence. I look for signs. I try to conjure him. But unlike my parents, I am not so free with my longing. I do it in private, alone or with my husband. I don’t do it with them. I can’t and I don’t know why. All I know is that when my mother cries, I cannot. I want to fix this. I wish I could just call a contractor.
The rabbi tells a story about a little boy who goes out into the wilderness to pray. Upon the boy’s return, his father remind him that G-d is everywhere; where you worship makes no difference. The son says “Yes Papa, but I am different out there.” And we are different out here. I feel myself opening up just a bit, tentatively, like a new sunflower unsure of which way the sun is facing. I put my arm around my dad who doesn’t consider himself much of a believer anymore. The idea of repentance makes me feel rebellious and angry, but this service, this second day of the New Year, the focus is on elevating our spirits and taking us higher. (Chest beating and repenting comes later.) I can get behind that. The shofar—the ram’s horn– is blown repeatedly and sounds like an animal giving birth every time. Hearing this is a call to wake up, the Rabbi reminds us. We, along with all the dogs, the babies, and the kids doing a ropes course nearby heed the call. We rise.
The Torah portion begins, and human sacrifice is the theme. Throughout the reading, to balance the dark with the light (I’m sure this is not the real reason), different groups go up to the makeshift bema to receive a blessing from the rabbi. On the second to last one– for those who want to make a change in their lives—my parents and I step forward. I have so many changes to make and wonder about which ones my parents have in mind. We will never discuss this. I hold my long scarf around us like a tallit, and we recite our portion of the blessing. After the rabbi shares her words of encouragement, we stand on other side of the bema for the final blessing. I notice a young woman wearing a butterfly shawl standing a few feet from me, and her hands are clasped as she scans the space. Something about her seems sad. Without hesitation or thought, I reach out and wrap my arms around her. I’ve never seen her before. She cleaves to me and we sway with the music until it stops. “That just made me cry,” she said. “I was looking for my family.” I hugged her again and then we stood for a moment, facing each other. “My name is Robbie,” she said, sticking out her hand and shaking mine before disappearing into the crowd.
I slowly walk back to my seat, a little stunned. Then I tell my parents what had just happened and cannot help but cry. We sit quietly on the grass after that, and point our heads toward the sun.
Laurie Shiers is a late bloomer who, for fifteen years, hid her literary ambitions beneath a successful copywriting career. She is now her own kind of writer and creative development coach. Laurie lives in Los Angeles where she works with artists to connect with the passion and purpose behind their projects. Her work can be found in the Corvus Review, Adoptive Families, and on the back of many health and wellness packaged goods.