Uncle invited me to the High Holy Day services since I happened to be in from college for the holidays. I suppose he had no choice or maybe he wouldn’t have because the tickets cost $600. Well, that’s what Aunt Nettie said. I thought that was a little much, I mean, even if it was the High Holy Days (they enjoyed that remark) so when I asked why it was so expensive, Uncle explained that this was their membership fee for the year and they only used their membership for the holidays.
Their tickets, however, allowed them to sit up front while cousin Marvin and his wife, Estelle, whose tickets only cost $400, had to sit way in the back. Marvin was entitled to reduced Hebrew School tuition for his kids with his membership so he didn’t complain (he has three kids in the school). They didn’t mind so much sitting in the back because it was less formal, except they couldn’t hear or see anything and every so often there was something they wanted to catch.
The Goldman Auditorium
They open the Goldman Auditorium, a special section in the rear of the Temple, to accommodate the crowd that comes on the High Holy Days (to use up their membership). Aunt Nettie hates the Goldman Auditorium. She considers it almost worth the extra couple hundred dollars not to be stuck there. The seats are ordinary folding chairs, not the soft velvety seats they have in front and she says it can get very wearing to sit through a whole service on bridge chairs. Furthermore, the acoustics in this particular Temple are not great and if you wanted to get anything at all out of praying, you had to sit close to the Rabbi. The Temple they belonged to before had better acoustics, she said, but the Rabbi was terrible.
Well, on this particular day, it being Rosh Hashanah, Aunt Nettie told me I could use her ticket and go and hear the blowing of the shofar. It was her favorite service; of all the services she had sat through, this was her favorite. She was really moved by the blowing of the shofar, the cry for Jews of all generations. I declined because I knew the ticket cost $600 and if she really felt so wild about hearing that cry, I would just do without, but she insisted because much as she wanted to go, she felt obliged to stay home to prepare dinner for all of us instead. Marvin and Estelle and their kids (Scottie, Tina, and Stacey) were coming and since services were not over until twelve and she was planning a three o’clock dinner, it would be a rush.
It turned out that Marvin’s wife, Estelle, didn’t feel like going either and a $400 ticket was going to waste. Aunt Nettie tried calling everybody Jewish she knew but these folks had already been assessed and were going to their own temples to use it up. Aunt Nettie thought maybe she would invite a non-Jewish neighbor — you know, like for a regular concert — but she decided against it because the blowing of the shofar was really a small part of the total deal. So it ended up that nobody was available to go and the ticket went to waste. I told Aunt Nettie that I was sorry I didn’t know anyone in the area because I would have pitched in to help her find someone to use it up. I was glad I was on hand to use up the big $600 ticket.
True Blue Grass
We parked in the Temple parking lot and walked up a multi-colored mosaic type of path. The grounds around us were just as nice if not better than the other lawns we passed coming down, in spite of Uncle’s remark on the way: “You can tell this is a gentile neighborhood because the lawns are so well cared for.” When I mentioned the similarity of those lawns to the Temple lawn and even to his own lawn, he admitted that “times have changed and you can’t afford to have your weeds showing any more. People have a respect for blue grass.”
Inside the Temple, I felt a little peculiar when we said good by to Marvin and went to the front while he went by himself to the back. I couldn’t even see him when we sat down, he was so far away, but I assuaged my guilty conscience by thinking of him being closer, at least, to the blue grass.
The Seats, the Bima and the Rabbi
The seats were very comfortable, Aunt Nettie was right about that. You just felt like leaning way back and going to sleep, but being so close to the Bima, this was out of the question. I mean, Marvin could have, if his hard seats were our seats, and we could have if our soft seats were his seats, but as it was, none of us could get any sleep.
Uncle told me that the people who were honored with seats on the Bima had instructions not to cross their legs. I looked up at the President of the Temple and the President of the Men’s Club and the President of the Sisterhood and some others, maybe officers of the Board, and I thought it must be uncomfortable to have to sit without crossing your legs for an entire service. Especially for a woman. A man could sort of spread his knees and slouch a little but a woman couldn’t do that. Maybe at home in front of the TV but not on the Bima.
Uncle pointed out the Rabbi to me and told me he had been with this congregation for twenty years; he was Rabbi in the old temple when it was downtown. He told me the Temple moved to the suburbs three years ago when the neighborhood downtown changed and the congregation moved in dribs and drabs out here to the country. But it looked like the Assistant Rabbi, a much younger man, was conducting the service. It did seem to me, every now and then — especially during the prayers — that the official Rabbi was not happy about the Assistant Rabbi leading the service. He sat fidgeting in a big stately walnut chair (he was used to not crossing his legs so it wasn’t that) and I thought he might have wanted to conduct the whole service alone the way he used to downtown.
The Family in Front
I didn’t think further about the Rabbi because in the row in front of me something else was going on. A nice looking, dark-haired man in his thirties, flanked by his two children, was listening intently to the Assistant Rabbi. Meanwhile, the little boy on his left, a cute redheaded fellow about five or six, was looking at his father in an odd sort of way. As if he was somebody he didn’t know very well and was trying to get used to. The little girl on the man’s right resembled the boy, redheaded also and green-eyed, but she wasn’t looking at the father like the boy was. She was older, about ten or so, and busy looking around at the people.
Then, just like that, I knew the man was a visiting father. It was right there in the little guy’s eyes. No boy studied a father he was familiar with like this boy studied his. And I could see by the freckles and the red hair and the little tilted noses their mother wasn’t Jewish. And then I felt sad, you know, that the father was visiting and trying to take his half to the Temple for the High Holy Days, sort of a last ditch effort to bring them into the fold. To give them an exposure. He was Jewish, you could see it in his face — in the way he listened — but he was trying so hard with the kids. I saw him lean towards the boy and answer some question the boy asked. His voice was polite and he chose his answers carefully. Then, when the arc was opened and the girl didn’t stand when everyone else did, he turned towards her and asked her to get up, tactfully, as if she were a lady not a child, and it took her a few seconds to make up her mind about it. When she got up, he smiled and started to put his hand around her waist but changed his mind.
The Cantor was an “older guy.” Uncle told me the temple had recently hired a new Cantor, a younger man who could really sing. In fact, he was disappointed that the “older guy” was scheduled today because he enjoyed the younger man so much more. Well, everybody did. The young one was a tenor with a crystal clear voice — a real Caruso.
I saw the old Cantor come up to the lectern with the ram’s horn under his arm. The Assistant Rabbi moved over to make room for him even though he was still conducting the recitative reading. The Cantor waited, looking out at the congregation and every so often down at his ram’s horn, until the recitative reading was concluded. Then the Assistant Rabbi stepped back from the stand and the Cantor took center stage.
Wetting his lips and taking a deep breath, he blew the first blasts of the shofar, heralding the New Year:
Tekiah! Three times in succession …
The organ, hidden behind a walnut and fiberglas partition, echoed the notes at once and it was a stirring sound to hear. The Assistant Rabbi translated the call: “Tekiah: these vibrant notes of the shofar announce a welcome to the New Year!”
Then, wetting his lips again and bracing himself, the Cantor blew the second call: Shevorim! Three times in succession … a low note and a high note. Again, the unseen organ resonated with the sounds of shevorim. Again, the Assistant Rabbi offered the message of shevorim: “Small or big, all our voices are heard by God!” Then came a terrible moment. A horrifying moment of stillness when the Cantor blew into the ram’s horn to make the third call of the shofar, the little broken notes of Teruah. But nothing came. Nothing! He blew. He blew until his face grew red and his knees bent and the sound of hollow air carried through to the Goldman Auditorium.
The Assistant Rabbi flushed and turned to the Rabbi; the Rabbi heaved his shoulders and stared unblinkingly at the Cantor as if his breath and stature could affect the stubborn notes as it had his congregation for twenty years, especially in the old temple where they appreciated him. The stunned congregation was silent for the first time that whole day as it watched and waited while the Cantor again blew his hollow air. A pause to catch his breath and then again he blew, his face becoming crimson as the velvet seats. Then, finally, the organ from deep within its walnut and fiberglass cavern repeated the notes of Teruah just as if they had come from the ram’s horn and immediately, the Assistant Rabbi launched an explanation of its meaning: “Teruah — these short blasts of the shofar signify the small things in life which God also gives His ear to –”
— and suddenly the horn did blow … but it was too late. The old Cantor looked up at the Assistant Rabbi, hoping he would go back over it. But it was too late.
There was a quiet mumbling in the congregation as people told each other how difficult it was to blow the shofar. Very hard to do … but they wished the younger man was scheduled today; the younger men seem to have less trouble with it. And Uncle was embarrassed, I could see it. The velvety seats, the blue grass outside, the two Rabbis, and then this?
There was one more call remaining. Tekiah gedola! The strongest call of all. One single blast of the shofar representing all the others. The Cantor wet his lips. He lifted the ram’s horn to his mouth. He did not look at the congregation. He did not look at the Assistant Rabbi next to him or the Rabbi behind him. He took a breath. The congregation and all those on the Bima took a breath for him, held it, waited, watched him … wanting him to make it this time. Make it!
Tekiah gedola! One great note rising high and slowly fading into the recessed lighting and the Lucite dome and beyond … beyond.
You could feel the happiness! You could hear it as the organ took up the note and soared with it. You could feel the joy that every man and woman shared with each other in that splendid moment. There was no applause, not anything like that, but a sense of joy that fairly shook the walls of the Temple like laughter and billowed into the choir’s walnut hiding place.
“Tekiah gedola!” the Assistant Rabbi fairly shouted. “The strongest call of all. The call that unites all others! Le shana tova! A good New Year!”
The official Rabbi got up to speak. He walked in a very distinguished manner toward the lectern, his hands folded at his chest, and he smiled at the congregation and they smiled at him. He made announcements about the Yom Kippur services which were scheduled, and about all the coming attractions, and then he gave a sermon on how Reform Judaism is helping Israel and how soldiers are giving their lives over there and families are risking their lives and we are only giving money but we should give it, at least. After this, the Assistant Rabbi took over again and the Cantor sang something behind the wall with the choir and Uncle pointed thumbs down. He was no Caruso.
The little red-headed girl found a friend, a petite girl with short wavy hair who had arrived late
with her mother and father and were seated next to her. The two girls were giggling about the bald head of the man in front of them whose yarmulke had no place to be pinned and kept falling off. To impress her new friend, the little red-headed girl stood promptly when the congregation was asked to rise and she opened her Prayer Book to the right place and closed it at all the proper times. Every so often, when they chattered too loudly, her father turned and put a finger to his lips but his eyes were gentle and he smiled.
The Benediction came. The official Rabbi raised his arms as we bowed our heads. The little red-headed girl studied her feet and seemed glad that she had worn black patent leathers like the friend beside her. Her young brother looked at the bald head of the man in front and at the old people on the other side of him and around at us and then he looked at his father in that same thoughtful way as before.
We were on the path outside the Temple, waiting for cousin Marvin when I saw the family for
the last time. The father and his daughter were walking slowly along the mosaic path towards the parking lot. The little boy walked beside them on the grass, his fingers cupped over his mouth. And from his lips as he passed, I heard the shrill, vibrant timbre of Tekiah gedola, trailing behind him.