by Lindsay Haber
Rabbi Booth arrives at Temple Beth El three hours before the first service of the day. This is his second ever rabbinical position and his first time leading the High Holy Days at Beth El. Two months ago, when offered the job, he moved from California with his wife Rosemary and their two young sons.
The rabbi’s father always told him how much he valued a man of religion, how it was the only thing worth doing, how he’d have been a rabbi instead of an accountant if things had been different. Rabbi Booth, having all respect in the world for his late father, concludes this must be the main reason he committed to this life.
Kol Nidre went well enough, but the young rabbi knows the people of his congregation are still mourning the loss of the revered Rabbi Freidman. He knows regardless of how many laughs he provokes or serious nods he elicits, it will never be enough to replace the man who signed the Ketubas at their weddings, performed the Brisses of their sons, laid their loved ones to rest.
The rabbi stands alone in the office bathroom, washing his hands even though it’s the day of the fast, and thinks of the word atonement. At first he atones for the surface things: daydreaming during tutoring sessions, growing impatient with his sons, noticing cleavage while reading the Torah. But a few minutes later, as he sits alone at his desk in his quiet place of worship, the word atonement comes back. He breathes in the still air, closes his eyes, and prays. He prays to be okay with the life he’s made, to become a true man of God, the person everyone thinks he is.
May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Amen) in the world that He created as He willed.
Close to the instant the rabbi unlocks the sealed oak doors of the Synagogue, Susan Segal pushes her way through. Susan is president of the Women’s Club, organizer of the annual Rummage Sale, teacher of the third grade Hebrew school class. She is an hour early, and when she hugs the rabbi and kisses his cheeks, she has no sense whatsoever of how uncomfortable she makes him.
Susan goes over her announcements with the Rabbi, even though her speech will be nearly identical to the one she made the night before. She asks him the same questions she’s asked him all week: Have you looked over the plans for the Sukkah? Okayed the chaperones for the Matzo Factory field trip? Rabbi Booth are you feeling alright? You look flushed. Can I get you something? Are you sure? Rabbi Booth? Rabbi Booth? Rabbi Booth? He walks away from her.
Susan is a woman who knows everyone yet has no close friends. People treat her like someone they don’t understand, like someone they’re only able to keep at a certain distance. No one ever mentions Susan’s ex-husband or the real reason he left her. They never ask why her kids dropped out of Hebrew High, why she’s always at services alone. No one notices the lack of lashes on her right eye or how she’s never looking at anything in particular.
Earlier this morning, as the taste of her un-brushed teeth began to settle, Susan thought of the word atonement. At first, she atoned of the surface things: her clumsy job on the Purim baskets, occasional haste driven rudeness, neglect of her dog’s matted fur. But on her walk to the temple, as the word sank deep into the stream of Susan’s thoughts, she thought about her genuine disgust for herself and how she clings to it like a sick sadistic comfort, one she’ll never be able to let go of.
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days, and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel, swiftly and soon.
At a quarter til’ in walk the Schwartzs, the Rosenblatts, the Orensteins. In come the Fromkins, the Rubensteins, the Bloomfields, and the Nadlers.
Marney Nadler watches her husband walk Jake and Jillian to the children’s’ service in the Hebrew school wing. She walks to the adjacent granite wall with the small aligned plaques and runs her fingers along the cool metal rectangles. She stops at the name Edna Myers. It’s weird, seeing her surname like that, engraved and glaring.
Marney works full time as a paralegal but makes sure she reads to her children every night. She shares with them her knowledge of the world and how she feels that everything in life revolves around balance. She doesn’t realize how wonderful a mother she has become and is always striving to do more, to be better.
Marney presses a tender spot on the side of her breast. She knows she is pregnant again.
Her husband will be glad they’re expecting. He’s always wanted a big family. She shares most of her fears with him but can’t bring herself to tell him the thing that’s been keeping her awake: that it will happen to her, that she will forget them and be taken away.
The word atonement escapes a conversation from behind and interrupts Marney’s thoughts. At first she atones for the surface things: how she should have visited every week, replaced the socks and diapers more often, taken her mother outside on breezy spring days. But as her fingertip meets the indent of the name once hers, she admits she should have never put her there. She should have done anything else.
Now say: Amen. (Congregation: Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.)
Nathan Chavis is hung over. He’s home from break and met up with some of his high school buddies the night before. Thank God his parents didn’t make him go to Kol Nidresh. Six hours of this shit is more than enough. Nathan is glad he got to see his boys: Titts, Coney, Bones and Mitz. He’s known as Natty to them and only to them. His Alpha Epsilon Pi brothers call him Chavy. He’d never let them call him Natty.
` Nathan is a freshman, and it’s the first time he’s been away from his pledge brothers. In a weird way, he misses his frat. In another, he’s kind of pissed about the whole thing. A week ago was Hell week, and he still hasn’t fully come to grips with what they made him do. He shudders. He feels sick. He needs to smoke some weed.
As he passes Susan Segal, his old Hebrew School teacher, he notices the title: The Day of Atonement, laminated on the front cover of her binder. Nathan taps the faithful joint in his suit pocket as he thinks about those words. He first atones for the surface things: slacking off on readings, sleeping through classes, his overall attitude of not giving a fuck. But then, as he notices the Coopers walking their youngest to the Hebrew School wing, he thinks of how those things were wrong, how he was brainwashed, how could he have done them?
Nathan walks to the front of the lobby and whispers toke? to Lenny Cohen. Lenny gives a thumbs up. The two sneak out a side exit and walk around back.
Lenny is a year older than Nathan Chavis. Unlinke Nathan, Lenny fucked around in high school and is now stuck in this shithole town. He is only in temple to get his mother off his back. For some weird reason, it makes her happy to straighten his tie and still think of him as a little boy.
Lenny works as a mechanic and is taking classes towards an official trade degree. His girlfriend is the one thing keeping him here and in his mother’s house. Even though he pays for all of the groceries and a quarter of each mortgage payment, he still feels like a loser and a parasite. Lenny fasts today, not because of the religious implications, but because he feels it’s healthy for his psyche. For him, the sensation of hunger lends itself to a greater appreciation for food and the experience of daily living.
Before Lenny hits the joint, he thinks of the word atonement. At first he notes the things that settle on the surface: how he doesn’t defend his girlfriend when his grandmother calls her a Shiksa, his rude attitude towards idiot customers, the steady progression of his online gambling habit. As the smoke swirls through Lenny’s lungs though, he admits the real reason he can’t leave, admits he’s scared, terrified he’ll fail and have to come back. Sometimes it’s easiest to stay.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One
Jessica Rosencranz is being dragged through the door by her Mother. Her dad and her younger brother are staying out of it. Jess hates her mother. Hates her. Why is she so annoying? It’s bad enough she made her continue with Hebrew school after her Bat Mitzvah when everyone else got to quit. Now she’s making her miss her soccer retreat too? And for what? Stupid temple?
Jessica hates being Jewish. She still begs her parents to get a Christmas tree, to give her and her brother Easter baskets. Her mom tells her she’ll understand one day. Yeah Right. When she’s a mom she’ll never make her kids fast for an entire day, attend six hour services in another language, force them to be different. Ugh. She’d rather be doing anything but this.
Jessica sees Josh Kaplan across the room. She swallows hard and turns her head. He’s come a long way since his braces and jewfro. Her mom nudges her arm and tells her to say hi in a voice that’s way too loud. Shut up, Mom! You’re embarrassing me! Jessica’s mother tells her she can’t take her attitude for one second longer and enters the synagogue with her brother and dad, leaving Jessica alone, surrounded by adults who used to dote over how pretty she was becoming.
Earlier, her obnoxious parents had woken her up with one of their loud discussions, and Jessica had listened from her bed like she always does. This time, their rants were about the word atonement. The word settled into early hours of Jessica’s morning. She first thought about pinching her brother for leaving the toilet seat up, never letting her mother see her smile, giving her teachers the finger from under her desk. But later, as she pulled her sheer stockings up one leg at a time, the word pierced her again. She looked at her close to naked reflection and promised she’d do anything, anything she could for the stretch marks on her hips to disappear, for just one senior boy to find her ugly, pimply, disproportioned face attractive.
Blessed is He. beyond any blessing and song,
Barry Davidowitz sends his wife in without him. He has to make a business call. Even though technology is forbidden on Yom Kippur, he knows there are exceptions to the rules. For example, he’s on the cusp of being diabetic, which justifies his cream of wheat breakfast, hot coffee, and slice of crumb cake this morning. Plus, his wife is the one who’s caught up in the more ritualistic side of it. Sure, he likes being a Jew in theory, but is walking to temple and fasting all day necessary? He doesn’t think so. He walks across the street to make his phone call and pops in a piece of Big Red gum. It causes him to spit on the receiver as he demands to speak to a manager. Incompetent morons, all of them. The veins on Barry’s neck pop as he grumbles and fixes the kippah slipping down the side of his head.
Last night in bed, after the Kol Nidresh service she’d dragged him to, his wife brought up the word atonement. He snorted. Life shouldn’t be about guilt, it should be about progress.
But as he moved around in bed, restless and thinking, the surface things kept him awake: stealing from the Rummage Sale, missing his daughter’s college swim meets, criticizing his employees. Then, in the morning, as his wife stood looming over his sweet smelling breakfast, the word hit him twice as hard. For a small frame of time and only to himself, Barry reflected on those nights in the backroom of the strip club and how he shouldn’t have done it.
Praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. Now say: Amen.
Cantor Levy stands on the Bimah. He tunes his guitar and warms his vocal chords. The begins to file in, and he thinks: this is it, the day I wait all year for. The Cantor is a strict conservative Jew. Nothing has passed through his lips today, not even a glass of water. All of his technological devices are turned off and in his closet. He feels proud of himself, like he’s capable of doing things the right way.
The Cantor has been at Beth El for 17 years. He’s seen the floors renovated, the stained glass replaced, the preschool wing built. He helped hold the heavy set Henry Katz up during the Hora at his Bar Mitzvah, began the tradition of singing Dayenu as a round during Passover services. He was also good friends with Ann Hirsch’s husband and the last one to see him on the night he killed himself. He trembles at the thought. His hands become humid with sweat. How calm, how remarkably calm Mitchell seemed. If only he could have... No, it isn’t worth it.
The Cantor has been thinking about Yom Kippur for weeks. So far, he has planned to repent for the obvious things: his habit of saying no when the children request a certain song in Sunday school, the resentment he puts on his wife for barely having sex with him, his disdain for the new rabbi. But now, as he eyes Anne Hirsch walking towards his stage, the word grabs at his insides. He feels a deep wrenching pain. He knew something was wrong that night in his office, knows he should have done something about it. He’d dreamt the man’s death the night prior, smelt it on him during their last conversation.
May there be abundant peace from Heaven and life upon us and upon all Israel. Now say:Amen
Dotty Horowitz sits in the first row of cushioned benches. Everyone always leaves the space open for her and her family. She is one of the eldest of the congregation and was an original member when it was built in 1972. Dotty sits next to her great grandson, who prefers her company to the kids in the Hebrew school wing. She pats his hand in hers and hums.
Her great grandson rubs his finger across her tattoo and says “Nona, your numbers!” Dotty pulls her sleeve down and tells her granddaughter to take him to the bathroom before the service starts. She never knows what to do when he touches it, never knows the right words. She had the same problem with her children and grandchildren.
Dotty watches the young rabbi make his way up the stairs of the Bimah. She remembers a time when her father’s hair grew like that, in thick wispy sideburns.
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace, upon us and upon all Israel.
So now the Jews of Beth El trickle into the synagogue and continue to take their seats. They greet their friends, use the bathroom one last time, fix their hair coverings, and adjust their Tallit. With hungry stomachs and reflective minds, they feel they’re ready for the service, the service of atonement.
Rabbi Booth stands on the podium. He clears his throat and goes through the motions of pretending to believe. He smiles at his wife and children. They wave. He waves back.
Susan Segal checks her make up in the bathroom mirror and recites her speech for the Women’s Club. Every time she speaks out of order, she pulls an eyelash out and starts again.
Marney Nadler’s husband kisses her on the lips and takes his hand in hers. She quizzes herself constantly on daily occurrences and clings to her years as if they are the beginning of her end.
Nathan Chavis and Lenny Cohen walk back in through the main entrance. They are both a little too high. Nathan is starving. He thinks about mozzarella sticks, and Lenny thinks about how loud everyone is talking. Do they realize how loud they all are? Both enter the synagogue and scan the room for their mothers. They hug and slap each other’s backs, knowing this may never happen again, understanding the trajectories of their lives are not in sync.
Jessica Rosencranz sits in between her mother and father. Her brother is in the Hebrew school wing with the younger kids. The smell of her mother’s perfume overwhelms her with grief, and for a second, she thinks she might cry. Why am I so mean to her? When did I become such a bitch? She looks at the lines in her mother’s face and notices for the first time how much older she looks. Jessica places her hand on her Mother’s shoulder, and it relaxes into her small palm.
Barry Davidowitz is causing a scene, brushing against an entire aisle of people and searching for his wife. He finds her, and instead of telling her she looks beautiful, he complains about his business call. His wife has learned the art of pretending to listen long ago and continues to admire the face of the young rabbi who is getting ready to begin. Barry goes on and on, spitting tiny particles of Big Red gum until the rest of the chunk dissolves over the surface of his tongue.
Cantor Levy sits on the side of the Bimah, waiting to be called upon. His guitar rests on its stand in the corner. He looks over the sea of his audience and does everything he can to avoid eye contact with Anne. He’s certain he’ll have nightmares on all the nights of the days he sees her, and sometimes when he doesn’t, for the rest of his time on this earth. The rabbi calls him, and the cantor makes his way to the center of the stage.
Dotty Horowitz bounces her knee to the Cantor’s melody. Her great grandson picks at her nail polish, but she doesn’t stop him. The Cantor sings, and her great grandson picks away, scratch, scratch, scratch, one layer at a time until there’s nothing left, nothing but a small island of paint on her right pinky finger.
Now say: Amen.