September 29, 2005
In the Seats Around You
I got a new outfit for yontif. The clothes add to the newness of this time of year, just like the first day of school. I sometimes wonder if the synagogues crank up the air conditioning on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so we have an excuse to wear our new fall clothes.
The shul I grew up in had assigned seats -- the bigger the macher, the closer to the bimah -- so we got to know the people who sat around us. I came to rely on them being in their seats as part of the holiday: the woman a few rows in front with the beautiful silver hair; the board member who sat with his son in the section to our right, who was recently carrying his grandson up and down the aisle; the May-December couple who now look more like the a November-December couple, and the "lady doctor" who sat next to us. We knew she was a doctor because Dr. preceded her name on the pledge form we dutifully handed her each year. However, we've never learned her name because we didn't have time to read the entire card as we were passing them on. I wish we had asked her name. Instead, we settled for a smile and a "Good yontif." I still ask my parents how she is when I call home after services.
I remember the women who wore hats (my mother said women should wear hats on yontif). And I remember hanging out as a teenager, laughing and flirting. Since all the adults were in services and the teachers were busy with the younger children, the shul and its hallways were ours.
Funnily, I can't remember the beautiful sermons my rabbi gave, but I remember these people. We marked the passing of our years by observing them -- the graying of hair, the addition of grandchildren.
I've watched as the people having aliyahs have gone from being my parents' friends to my friends. The children in the hallways are my children. When did this happen? The feeling of being itchy in my new tights and wool jumper, and eating apples and honey with my Hebrew school class is still so fresh in my mind.
The High Holidays make your mind wander -- wander around the people around you and no longer around you. I remember sitting in the back of the sanctuary during Yizkor. I wasn't supposed to be there. None of my friends were allowed to sit with me. But my sister did. We wanted to be there to remember our grandparents. And it was important to be in the sanctuary as if by being there we were lending our strength to our parents who were reciting "Kaddish."
The first Rosh Hashanah away from my childhood synagogue was lonely. I was a stranger. My husband stayed home with our infant daughter so I could attend services. I sat in the front, not because I was a macher, but because I got there early. I looked around. No one had beautiful gray hair, I had no idea who the board members were and no one was sitting next to me. I saw some men drifting off, but they were not my father. I missed him as I missed my mother and my sister. I missed the familiarity of the hallways. I missed my congregation. I was wearing new clothes, but it didn't feel like yontif. Suddenly, in walked a boy who I had grown up with, who I was in Hebrew school carpool with. He sat next to me and introduced me to his wife who was expecting their first child. He pointed out people he knew.
We reminisced about home. And with that, it wasn't just some synagogue anymore -- it was my shul.
Meredith Jacobs, author of the soon-to-be released "Modern Jewish Mom's Guide to Shabbat" (HarperPerennial), runs www.modernjewishmom.com.