High Holidays retrospective – Part II

Here is Part II of my retrospective on the High Holidays.  I wrote this in fits and spurts rather than all at once, so it may be a little discombobulated.

Junior and senior years of undergraduate

During my last two years of undergraduate, both days of Rosh Hashanah were on weekdays.  Because my classes were pretty difficult, I only went to one day of each services (the first day each year) and blew the shofar.  During my junior year, I went to services with Mom & Dad, and they didn’t go until the Torah service.  The emotions of the day didn’t really seem to affect me very much, as my words that I used in my summary were mainly the structure and my comments on shofar blowing (i.e. it was difficult to blow the twisty, long one).  I enjoyed having Danny familyNeiden in town as cantor, as it made the musical experience sound more holiday-like.  He was the chazzan in previous years at our synagogue, and the return enriched the experience.  In my senior year, it was a “family style” High Holiday service, where all the contributions came from local members of the synagogue (i.e. we didn’t bring in a cantor), being organized by Ken Bloom and Nancy Coren.  Both of these years, we followed the Rosh Hashanah service in Lincoln with a drive to Omaha for a turkey dinner at Aunt Cheryl’s, and if there’s one thing that I definitely began to cherish on the High Holidays, it was family time.

During my junior year, I didn’t get the full experience at the service, however, because on that Yom Kippur, I was at the mercy of Mom & Dad’s driving.  Ergo, I missed most of Shacharit, and after the Yizkor service, we did not stay for the Musaf.  The Divrei Torah talked about transition and the Kohen Gadol among other topics, and for some reason, though it was merely notes taken then, it seems to speak to me now.  I don’t know what it’s saying, though.  When we returned for Mincha/N’eilah, the Torah Service was a partial-Weiss family affair, as I was on the bimah with Mom, and Dad lifted the Torah, Mom dressed it, and Levi carried it.  The Mincha service seemed to drag on, but as N’eilah came, it was somehow very moving to me.  In particular, when we got to the Kedushah and sang Pitkhu Lanu, Nancy read the English in parallel with Danny singing the Hebrew, and that combination brought tears to my eyes, as well as the nigun (i.e. tune) of the song.  I think this was the first time that I realized how powerful the service is, and was one of the first times that I could actively discern my emotions.

Skipping ahead to my senior year and the Yom Kippur service, as I previously mentioned, it was done “family style” in terms of leading.  The D’var Torah spoke to me, because it involved numbers: the main thesis was that Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei (G-d) has a numerical value of 26, and Alef-Hei-Bet-Hei (“Ahava” = love) has a numerical value of 13.  It was an introduction to Hebrew numerology, and I think I heard this lesson repeated when we were in Z’fat in Israel.  I am always on the lookout for patterns and connections, and thus it resonated well with me.

Later that day (i.e. for the morning service), the tunes were of holiday variety, unlike two years prior when we had the pinch-leading.  The diversity of American Jewry came up several times during the D’var Torah, and though I didn’t expand further on it in my journal, it was still an interesting concept.  That year, for the first time that I can remember, we stayed for Musaf, and in addition to the long Amidah, it included Seder Ha’avodah, the service of the Kohen Gadol.  It was done mostly in English, as were parts of the service itself.  But, as I later wrote in my journal, and to use one of Rifka’s favorite rationalizations, “We won’t get struck by lightning!”

I realized why so many repetitions of the Amidah seemed so irksome to my family and me.  We were so used to the hekhe-Kedushah form during regular Shabbat services, that the full repetitions seemed … excessive.  Once again during N’eilah, I had a little breakdown as we sang Pitkhu Lanu, and I think it also really dawned on me that this could be the last High Holiday services in a while that I get to have in Nebraska, perhaps adding to my emotional situation.  The service included some English interspersed throughout as well, and at the end, I blew the Shofar and then got to play Henry’s role of speeding through Ma’ariv.  I didn’t go too slowly!

First year of graduate school in Evanston

Moving to Evanston did not dampen my holiday spirit at all… in fact it may have extended it further!  The Conservative services for the High Holidays are all in the Louis Room in the Norris Center… which has a view of the lake as we’re davening!  The first night of Rosh Hashanah introduced me to a new twist on a special instruction in the Machzor… the “Northwestern Rule!” Everything specific to Shabbat is in… purple in the Machzor! The first day of Rosh Hashanah gave new perspectives to me, and all of them were very interesting.  Among these, were the idea to focus on Hashem’s sovereignty, especially as Shacharit began, and how the view of the lake is a mark of beauty in the world.  Also, the reason we do so much in services silent or mumbling is explained in the Haftarah… a result of Hannah‘s silent prayer in which her lips moved but made no sound.

Musaf also found more emotions and background that I never had before.  The origin of Hineni came from the 18th century, from a Rabbi who doubted his ability to lead the congregation before the judgment.  The range of emotions were quite poignant, even if Chazzan Zev stayed in one place (c.f. the Hineni walk mentioned in the previous post).  Also, I never realized the importance of the Un’taneh Tokef part of the service until some background on it was posted.  It’s the same page with one of my favorite tunes: “B’Rosh Hashanah yika-teivun, uv-Yom Tzom Kippur yei-kha-teimun”.  However, a different one, unfamiliar to me, was done.  This gave me some nostalgia for home, though I didn’t really notice any special emotion therein.  However, during Aleinu in the Malkhuyot portion of the service, I felt moved to do a full prostration during “V’anakhnu korim…”  Though I enjoyed the service, I felt no special vibes on the second day, or just blew them over in my journal.

Come Yom Kippur in my first year in Chicago, most of my memories came not from the emotions of the service, but rather what I learnt in the Divrei Torah (and perhaps some of the notes hint at emotions).  The D’var Torah talked about Rabbi’s time once as a hospital chaplain, and the idea hinted was about forgiving humans, going back to the saying, “Yom Kippur only atones for sins committed against G-d.  It does not atone for sins committed against another human being until one has placated the one offended.”  During that Kol Nidrei service, some of the tunes were unfamiliar, which I expected to happen, though I still followed along.  Obviously, it made me miss Lincoln a bit, but that is natural.  Again, no vivid emotions were immediately apparent, unless I just ignored them in my journaling.

Emotions weren’t really part of the Yom Kippur morning service that year… rather ideas.  Such as, “What is the literal translation to Vidui?  The double alphabetical acrostic is fine and dandy [though the number of words/statements don’t match up between Hebrew and English].”  Other thoughts seemed to be wiped out or simply muddled together, as my details from the service are surprisingly (or not!) fuzzy.  The Musaf had both Seder Ha’avodah and Eileh Ezkerah, though the latter was done quietly and individually.  It was difficult to read, as it gave gruesome accounts of death.

The time in between, for once, had activity!  There were thought circles in the Pick-Staiger lobby, and they started from an article involving “Disney on Yom Kippur.”  Of course, like any conversation starter, it moved in a thousand different directions, but I didn’t pay attention to all the details.  It made me feel more at home, and also gave me intellectual enlightenment, to have something social to pass the time between the services.  It also diverted my mind and body from the fasting.  Surprisingly, even the N’eilah service didn’t have any explicit emotions that I suggested from my journal, but rather felt just like a routine at this point.  I did notice that Pitkhu Lanu and El Nora were not done aloud, but I think at this point I had accepted that not everything will be just like it was.  It was still a meaningful finish to the service.

Second year of graduate school

Rosh Hashanah came in early September, so that the crowd was smaller and older than last year.  There is nothing wrong with that… it is merely a different thing.  The holiday got off to an…interesting start as I was near the Kellogg building, with members of the Westboro “Baptist Church” (I really have difficulty calling an extremist group a church) and their ridiculous protest signs.  Some more sane community members were counter-protesting, singing songs and words of love.  The Ma’ariv services that night were nothing special, but that ‘s just the way it goes.

During the Shacharit service, each time a different explanation was given before Hamelekh on page 104 (or is it 102?), sometimes related to how to consider the service, sometimes reflecting on the world, and other times other things.  Like usual, I was called to the Torah as an aliyah, and the most interesting thing I learnt was that the Rosh Hashanah service has 100 calls for the shofar.  Evidently, if the shofar is not blown during the silent Musaf Amidah, they are made up during Kaddish Shalem at the end of the service.  I also learnt that the crux of the new year is implied by the stories involving Abraham.  Interesting!

The few students that were there were together during Tashlikh as we walked the lakefill before returning to Norris for Minkha/Ma’ariv.  Between those services, some interesting thought circles took place, such as the reason for having the Kohen/Levi aliyot (a way to distinguish certain members of the congregation and quell arguments about who gets the first aliyah) as well as The Thirteen Attributes.  It was quite interesting to me, and I always enjoy new perspectives to draw from.

The second day had services that I tried to really “get into,” and the D’var Torah offered me an opportunity with the “put yourself in the character’s shoes.”  It was related to the akeedah (binding of Isaac) and each of the four corners of the congregation got to put themselves in, respectively, Abraham’s, Isaac’s, the watchmens’, and G-d’s perspectives.  It was enjoyable and reminded me of Sedra Scenes from Junior Congregation back in Lincoln.  Also, Rabbi Josh explained some of the symbolism of the shofar blasts… that the t’kiah shows completeness, whereas shevarim and t’ruah show wailing.  There are plenty of interpretations, and it is good to learn each of them.  Though I didn’t get emotionally attached to the service (or at least my notes don’t seem to imply it), it was still deeply meaningful to me.

That year on Yom Kippur, I was part of the bet din on Kol Nidrei so that I was right next to Chazzan Zev’s powerful voice.  The service itself didn’t catch me much, but I noticed a different tune for “La-brit ha-bet v’al teifen la-yeitzer” that was apparently the same as the Hayom tune they used in the Rosh Hashanah service.  I really miss the one from Lincoln, but at the same time, having new tunes means new memories.  I still liked this one.  The Divrei Torah this time were related to the idea of “truth” and universities… that word is in many mottos and seals of universities.  It still relates to Yom Kippur after all.  Before going home, I learnt of the five special prohibitions of Yom Kippur: (1) food, (2) water, (3) sex, (4) leather, and (5) anointing oneself.  Of course, the normal Shabbat restrictions also apply.

Even last year, the rest of the Yom Kippur service was more about the ideas than the emotions, at least from what I could recall.  Words are the primary method that people use to commit both sins and mitzvot–the tongue is both a blessing and a curse.  The Divrei Torah were done by students relating their Israel and Morocco experiences, respectively, and I didn’t really internalize them.  Unbeknownst to me at THAT point, I would apply and be accepted for Birthright in the coming year!  In previous years, I had complained about repetition, and the interesting thing is how repetition comes up in other senses in this service, besides the obvious Amidah repetition.  The Seder Ha’avodah is essentially a repetition of the Torah reading, and Eileh Ezkerah is a semi-repetition of Yizkor (both are memorial services–perhaps the latter is sort of for those who have nobody to remember them).

This weekend was “Wildcat Welcome” weekend, so though there were more students than on Rosh Hashanah, there were no thought circles planned this time, so I took a nap between the services (which seems very unusual for me) in the Norris Center.  Before Minkha, we discussed Jonah’s line “I am a Hebrew,” and before N’eilah, there was a D’var Torah inspired by a professor’s grandfather.  The grandfather had Alzheimer’s and repeated the phrase “L’hayim tovim u’shalom” before he died, and it was thought-provoking.  Somehow, emotions weren’t apparent to me, though.  The N’eilah service, though powerful as usual, didn’t have the same emotion because we didn’t do El Nora OR Pitkhu Lanu aloud.  I took the opportunity to daven in front of the Ark during the Amidah, and also marveled at the rain and wind that blew outside–seemingly a first for me on the holidays!

That was up until 5771, and then in 5771, on the 30th of Tammuz, my Jewish perspective changed forever (for the better) as I returned from my Taglit Birthright Israel trip.  Thus, I expected the High Holidays to be different, both emotionally and intellectually.  But indeed, from what I learnt about literary-analytic writing in my senior year of high school, the Chagim of 5772 focused more on the “E” than the “I” of DAVIE.

Third year of graduate school

Even as the holiday started, I could tell emotion was getting to me.  The Ma’ariv service for Rosh Hashanah got me teary, even the “standard” things.  The reason why might be one of the Hebrew phrases that I wrote in my journal afterward: “Ha-adam sheli b’evanston, aval ha-nefesh u-lev sheli b’yisrael” [translation: my body is in Evanston, but my heart and soul are in Israel].  The Divrei Torah spoke to me as well… one was about how life is a channel of rivers, and yearly it flows to the sea of the holidays.  It seems a little like the interpretive reading just before the N’eilah service that talks about the gates all converging to the “final gate” in life.  The other one talked about being lost in the woods, and finding others with insight.  What I noticed was this made me think of all the great friends that I made on the Israel trip.

Come the Shacharit service, the beginning didn’t immediately have any strong emotional context, though the association of my davening at Kibbutz Almog made me teary during Ahava Raba, despite the “Hatikvah” nigun not being sung there.  In some sense, though Israel is 10 megameters (i.e. 10,000 kilometers, i.e. 6000 miles) away from Evanston, I could still see it right across the lake.  Though emotion played a big part in the day, ideas also came on through the Divrei Torah.  For example, the “master” and “puppet” idea came about as “Abraham” and “Isaac” moments.  A good example, even within the service, show the first and second pages, respectively of Avinu Malkeinu.  Applying concepts to the liturgy make it much more relatable to me.  (Basically, an Abraham moment is the “I-am-the-center-of-the-world!” and an Isaac moment is the “I-am-a-part-of-something-bigger…” conviction.  We all have both!)

The Musaf service was very emotionally moving for me, with the unique tunes, the Aleinu during the Malkhuyot section, and the shofar blasts that really delved into me.  Particularly, on Aleinu, I clearly performed a full prostration at V’anakhnu korim… but my tears and thoughts (and stuffy nose from allergies–ha) prevented me from singing.  Something tells me it would be hard if I ever tried to lead a High Holiday service since the holidays seem to bring out the emotions in me.  Also, the power of U’n’taneh Tokef got to me, and though, in the second paragraph, the “traditional” tune beginning at “k’va’ka’rat ro’eh edro…” was not done, but in the third paragraph, my favorite “B’rosh hashanah yika’teivun” tune was done.  An idea that came up to me: with the 100 shofar calls, the Machzor shows 30 of them during the silent Amidah.  I wonder how it works in those congregations that do the shofar blasts during that section? Finally, my favorite tune for Hayom near the end of the service made a return with alacrity.

The second day had a lot of ideas, and the emotions mostly mirrored the first day, except where noted.  Several “revisiting” ideas came about, in that each time you revisit something, you find newness.  Despite the weather being foul (it has been cloudy and rainy both days of Rosh Hashanah this year), it didn’t dampen my experience of the holidays at all.  In fact, perhaps the lack of change in weather was something I took for granted while in Israel!  On the concept of revisiting, the Divrei Torah did just that.  The Akeedah presents a countless number of opinions and interpretations, and one of them was how relationships were changed between the different pieces of the story.  To me, the more interesting sermon was on the shofar, reiterating the idea of sh’varim and t’ruah representing wailing and shrieking.  It could have been what Sysera’s (sp?) mother went through, or Sarah’s reaction to the akeedah.  Again, since I already described my emotional reaction on the first day, it still held on the second day, and it is still hard for me to describe them in words.  It’s been only recently that I’ve really kept track of my emotions and explicitly noticed them…

Yom Kippur came about ten days later, and during most of the Kol Nidrei service, I couldn’t keep my eyes dry.  Arielle Rubenstein chanting the melodies made them sound a lot different (not in a bad way, of course) than what I was used to… this was the first time that I had heard a female chazzan during the Kol Nidrei service.  I knew that I was going to be continuously emotional during this service, since this is the epitome of the holidays, and obviously it allowed all my memories of Israel to come flowing back to me.  The D’var Torah was also quite interesting… it related to the beginning of Creation and how we are now so good at separation… it is both a good thing and a bad thing.  But, there was excess light created during Creation, and one interpretation is that everyone has shards of that extra light, deep within.  It is our goal to find how to unlock that light.

Granted, I also noticed that my memories blended together into the day, or at least my recall of my emotions did, on the day-part.  One of the sermons had to deal with the tension between life and Judaism in a college student’s life, as today happened to also be the day of the Northwestern/Michigan home football game, of which I had chosen to NOT (!) go to, because the High Holidays supersede everything else in my value system.  Interestingly, this fits in well with the Haftarah–the fast need not be gloomy, and indeed, focusing entirely on the holiday without eating, drinking, or worrying about the outside world is a great liberation for me!

The Musaf service, with the same emotional parts for me as in the previous services, continued fairly otherwise-uneventful.  This time, the Avodah service was not as interactive, and it would have been nice to sing the Mareih Kohen at the end of it, but I don’t make the schedule.  It was interesting to hear later about how the Machzor seamlessly incorporates the “required” and “optional” and “interpretive” components of the service.  The Musaf service ended quickly, but luckily this time, there were thought circles planned for afterwards, which I enjoyed.  From the initial question “Why are we here?” it went to discussions of time, amends versus apologies, sincerity, and many other topics.  I find that once I get into a conversation, it is easy to continue.

After an enjoyable walk on the lakefill with the wonderful weather, I returned with some of the others to the Minkha/N’eilah.  I didn’t take much note of what happened in the afternoon, as I think my mind was solely focused on the service and perhaps other ideas… like Israel.  I was quite interested in how each Amidah during the holidays have slightly but subtly different parts to them, other than the standard parts for every Amidah.  Come N’eilah, it was quite moving, despite the fact that during the service, there was a strikeout on my nostalgic tunes: Pitkhu Lanu was done silently, and Eil Nora Aleilah and Havdalah had different tunes than what I’m used to.  That didn’t matter to me, because the opportunity to daven in front of the Aron Hakodesh was moving and personally meaningful.  Though not as strong as when I was at the Kotel, it still moved me and gave me an indescribable experience.

Whew, I had a lot of words, but like everything else when it comes to certain experiences, words don’t do them justice.  Still, it is quite something how my experiences with Judaism and the High Holidays have changed in the last eleven-plus years.


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