Life and death and life again

Life and death and life again

Shabbat Shemini Atzeret in three time zones

Even in terrible times, there still is joy.
Even in terrible times, there still is joy.

In just a few hours, I crossed multiple time zones, but I never traveled more than a mile.

Instead of a passport, I used a fob, a Zoom link, an iPad, and a remote control to allow me to travel from my home in Montclair to my synagogue’s Shabbat-holiday service, to a cousin’s Simchat Bat in Berkeley, California, and to an unfolding war zone in Israel. Dizzy from the range of emotions I experienced in that short time, I am still trying to process the events of Shabbat Shemini Atzeret, the festival where we cling to the joy of Sukkot (“z’man simchataynu”) for one more day.

I woke up to a text from my friend. “So sorry about the situation in Israel. How is your family there?” Stephanie wrote. And that is how I found out that Israel was at war.

It didn’t seem possible; we had recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. For months, Israel had been hemorrhaging over its future as a more democratic or a more religious state.

Once Hamas launched its surprise attack on a festive holiday, though, who cared?

It didn’t seem possible; the sweet smell of the etrog still lingered, as did the mitzvah of eating in the sukkah. The apples and honey promised that 5784 would be a better year. A week earlier, my great-niece had shared the highlights of her recent trip to Israel, where each day was a glorious highlight.

My husband, Andy, and I have been planning our upcoming trip to Israel to celebrate a family bar mitzvah. Andy, glad not to wear a tie, was looking forward to a casual and joyous Shabbat on a kibbutz in the north. My sister and I talked about which Oculus Quest to buy Yoni for his bar mitzvah.

The other night, Andy and I had reserved tickets for a 10 p.m. Jeans Concert with the Israeli Philharmonic in Tel Aviv. I pictured the challah cover and challah board we would buy in Jerusalem. As we practiced conversational Hebrew, the words for hostages and terrorists never entered our vocabulary. The characters in our Hebrew practice dialogues always shopped, went to museums, and ate falafel.

So, with these disparate images swirling around in my mind like a cyclone, I arrived at shul, not knowing what to expect. Would we only pretend to praise God in Hallel or could we sing with sincerity? When we chant Kohelet, would we scorn, “A time for peace and a time for war?” And would we laugh and converse with friends at kiddush, or be too busy trying to untie the knots in our stomachs?

Once I donned my kippah and recited the blessing for wrapping myself in a tallit, I was ready to pray. But first, there was a practical matter at hand. Rabbi Julie reminded everyone to locate the exits on this high-alert day.

Bursting with special prayers and readings, such as Hallel, Kohelet, Yizkor, and Geshem, the holiday service followed its traditional rhythm. But no matter how hard we tried, something always felt different. Prayers we recited from rote suddenly had more import. We paused for reflection, we added or substituted a word. Sometimes we grappled with what to say because, honestly, there were no words.

The rabbi assured us it was okay to be joyous reciting Hallel. But as the euphoric melodies soared, she suggested that we look for the narrow spaces and the tension, too.

When we recited Yizkor, she encouraged us to remember those who died defending the State of Israel. In my gut, I knew we would be adding more names for those killed in this war, which didn’t yet have a name but was being called Israel’s 9/11.

I also remembered my own family members, including my mother, who died on Simchat Torah 29 years ago. This year, two congregants enhanced the Yizkor service by playing Ernst Bloch’s “Prayer for Jewish Life” on the cello and bass. The music reached our souls, where words could not enter.

Rabbi Julie led the familiar Prayer for the State of Israel, imploring God to bless Israel and “spread over it the shelter of Your peace.” As the community joined her, we deliberated over each word with a new heaviness. I was grateful that our congregation had continued reciting this prayer during the previous controversial months.

We concluded the service singing “Hatikvah,” with the Israeli flag in a more prominent place than usual.

I didn’t linger at the kiddush because a (virtual) baby-naming in California awaited. Rushing home, I attempted to create a different mindset, one ready for a simcha. I clicked on the Zoom link and joined 18 other virtual participants at Shabbat and holiday services across the country. I listened to the Torah reading — again. My Berkeley doppelganger chanted the haftarah that I had just chanted from the bimah in New Jersey. I participated in another Yizkor service, this time with the stirring rendition of “Mizmor LiDavid.” I recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for my mom — again. And for the second time, I prayed for Geshem — for God not to withhold water but to grant us the gift of water. If God hadn’t heard me the first time, here was her second chance.

Of course, the East and West Coast services were not mirror images. In northern California, Abby and Isaac welcomed their six-week-old daughter into the covenant of the Jewish people, the same covenant that Abby had joined a year before when she married Isaac.

Dalia Miriam, wrapped in her father’s tallit, was named for Isaac’s father, Dave (my husband’s uncle) and for his great-grandmother Miriam (my husband’s grandmother). Miriam had arrived penniless from Poland to start a new life in America. Her eldest son, Dave, had the responsibility of helping to raise his four siblings after his father died young. I had heard these stories before, but now Dalia was embodying them.

In Hebrew, Dalia means a gentle branch. That morning, her parents prayed that their “gentle branch” will branch out into the world, while keeping her roots firmly planted. They wished that she will be kind to people, and to the earth, and that resilience, righteousness, and hope always will sustain her.

It was incongruous to think that we joined the congregation singing “Siman Tov u’Mazel Tov” (from our New Jersey home, no less) while rockets raged in Israel and the death toll climbed. While a gruesome hostage situation became even more barbaric, we treasured a new family member and the hope for a better world.

What choice did we have? Dalia Miriam had given us this gift, and we accepted it with gratitude.

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