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Yom Kippur

by Marisa Elana James | Published on September 1, 2009

I want to tell you two stories this morning. The first is about my great-aunt Helen and great-uncle Jerry in Florida. I went to visit them this past week – uncle Jerry is in hospice care, and aunt Helen isn’t partic­u­larly healthy either. I hadn’t seen either one since I was a teenager, and both primarily remember me as a baby in my grandmother’s arms. In the last few years, I’ve been in touch with my uncle mainly through email. Jerry is 87, a Navy veteran of World War II, and a life­long Republican. His poli­tics and mine are very, very different. Many of his emails, partic­u­larly the things he forwards to long lists of his friends and family, infu­ri­ated me, and I’m sure that my very sweet but contrary responses infu­ri­ated him just as much. But this past week was the first time I’ve had a chance to spend any signif­i­cant time talking to my aunt Helen.

My great-aunt Helen and her sister sang and danced in clubs and halls all over Chicago in the 1940’s, performing with big-band orches­tras, glam­orous in sequined gowns and piled-up bleached-blond hairdos. Today, she is 85, less than 5 feet tall, 70 pounds, and trying to prepare for the death of her husband of almost 60 years.

At first, we mostly talked about family – her son, my favorite cousin, is expecting his first child, who will be Helen and Jerry’s first grand­child. My little brother, her great-nephew, grad­u­ated from college, and has his first real job. Each of us had family stories that the other didn’t know, and we laughed a lot. Then we went to visit uncle Jerry in the hospice, and after­wards all of Helen’s fears started pouring out. She feels help­less now that Jerry isn’t home paying the bills and taking care of every­thing. She is afraid that Jerry won’t live to see his first grand­child. She worries that people will think that she is a bad wife because visiting the hospice makes her so depressed.

From these fears she moved on to others. What did I think of Obama? She asked. I voted for him; she thinks he’s a terrorist. What did I think of Netanyahu? She asked. She loves him; he makes me worry. Aunt Helen said, “well, I guess we just have to agree to disagree,” as if it was the end of that conver­sa­tion. But when we got home she sat down in the kitchen and sighed. “Honey,” she said, “I just hate those awful Muslims. Aren’t you afraid of them, living in Jerusalem?” I opened up my computer and started showing her some of my photos.

In Jerusalem, I spend half of each day studying the Talmud, that massive, amaz­ingly complex and fasci­nating book of Jewish law. But in the after­noons I go to work for a small nonprofit group called Encounter. Every American student rabbi spends some time in Israel, usually a year, where we work on improving our Hebrew, we study ancient texts, we are immersed in Israeli society and hear different opin­ions about every­thing from Israeli friends and family and cabdrivers… but there are usually few or no first-hand oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn about Palestinian society. Encounter takes visiting students on two-day trips to Bethlehem, in the Palestinian Authority, to visit a local school, listen to personal stories, and stay overnight with local Palestinian fami­lies. No one is told what to think or what conclu­sions to draw from their expe­ri­ences — the goal of the program is to give the partic­i­pants the chance to listen.

Sitting in my great-aunt’s kitchen in Sarasota, Florida, I couldn’t give her the expe­ri­ence of listening to the people I know who live 3,000 miles away. But I opened up my photo albums and started telling her my own stories of the people I’ve met and listened to in Bethlehem and beyond. I told her about Daoud Nasser and his farm, filled with the laughter of his two little girls and the sounds of visi­tors and volun­teers from all over the world speaking in many languages, including local Israelis speaking Hebrew. I told her about Daoud’s wife, who teaches English and computer skills to the women in a nearby village. I told her about Hekmat Bassiso, a Muslim woman who works for women’s rights orga­ni­za­tions and travels all over the world, but whose chil­dren cannot visit the ocean, or their father. And I told her about my friend Mohammad.

On one of this year’s Encounter trips, one of the activ­i­ties was a poetry work­shop, with about 70 American and British Jews and Palestinian Christians and Muslims writing and compiling memo­ries and visions into joint poems about home.
My friend Mohammed was one of the leaders of the poetry work­shop. He and I met in Hebron. In many ways we are very different; he is 10 years younger than I am; he is Muslim, I am Jewish. Nevertheless, we instantly bonded over the shared expe­ri­ence of having rela­tively useless degrees in English liter­a­ture. The first time we met, we were walking through the old city of Hebron with a group of friends, Jewish, Muslim and Christian, American and Palestinian, talking about poli­tics in America, poli­tics in the Middle East, the differ­ences in the small towns where we grew up, people we loved who have died in the Middle East conflict, and 20th century American liter­a­ture, espe­cially The Great Gatsby.

I told my aunt Helen – many of these people who I know, who are my friends, are Muslim. In Jerusalem, I am afraid of reli­gious extrem­ists, but that cate­gory includes the orthodox Jewish yeshiva boys who will throw stones or spit at me if they see me wearing a kippah. I certainly am afraid of people who adopt an extreme, funda­men­talist form of Islam and believe that they are justi­fied in killing people who do not share their views, but that cate­gory does not include my friends Hekmat and Mohammad. I shared this with my aunt, and then I listened. Helen was looking at my photos, clicking through them again and again, and finally leaned back in her chair and took off her glasses. “You know what honey? I’ve never met one of these Muslims.” She paused a moment, and then continued. “What I don’t like is people who think they know what god wants, and that anyone who thinks some­thing different is wrong. I don’t know if I believe in god. People can believe what­ever they want, I don’t care, just as long as they’re good to people. That’s my reli­gion, honey, just being good to people.”

By now you might have forgotten, but I promised a second story.

The first time I was in Jerusalem, 17 years ago, I bought a shofar. It was my first shofar, and every year after that I brought it with me to Neilah at the end of Yom Kippur services to join in the mass sounding of the t’kiyah g’dolah. But when I returned to Jerusalem two years ago, I decided not to bring my shofar with me; I decided that it was time for a new shofar.

About two weeks before Rosh Hashanah I found a beau­tiful shofar. It was longer and more twisting than my old one, with a deep brown color and the begin­nings of an inter­esting sound. I brought it home and started prac­ticing, but once I was in my apart­ment, I couldn’t get a sound out of it. Nothing. I tried a second day, and still nothing. Finally, I looked inside the shofar to see if there was some kind of blockage… and I saw a large black spider waving its legs at me inside. I imme­di­ately evicted the beast, but even then I couldn’t bring myself to put my mouth on that shofar again so soon.

What next? I went and bought another shofar. This time, I bought a small shofar, which allowed me to easily see inside, to ensure that this shofar indeed had no inhab­i­tants. I found a sweet, cream-colored shofar, which sounded absolutely gorgeous the minute I tried it. I brought it home, and continued to produce perfect t’kiyahs.

The next day, I got into a van and drove with several other students from my school in Jerusalem to a kibbutz in the northern Negev, where we were leading services for Rosh Hashanah. As we settled into our rooms, my room­mate asked if she could try my shofar. I handed it over, she sounded it, and then hesi­tantly announced that there was a crack on the side of the shofar through which air was escaping. I don’t know when the crack happened, but because of the crack, it was no longer a kosher shofar.

At first I was really very upset – I had been blowing the shofar every year for 17 years, and the first time I was actu­ally spending the High Holidays in Israel I didn’t have a usable shofar? But the mitzvah is in listening to the shofar, not blowing it. The rabbis of the Talmud were very clear that our oblig­a­tion is to listen, and not to do it ourselves. This makes sense, because to be honest, if I’m blowing the shofar, no matter how much I’ve prepared my soul to be humble, there’s a little part of me that gloats over the sweet notes and groans over the duds. That year I had no choice, so I listened. Those blasts pierced right through me, and no trace of ego was left where the sound had passed.

There are some times when we’re meant to listen, when too much “doing” prevents us from hearing the things we need to hear. And I needed to hear that shofar.

Last week, we did not sound the shofar on the first day of Rosh Hashanah because it was also Shabbat. Shabbat is supposed to be pure joy – a taste of olam ha’ba, the world to come. But listening to the shofar is too complex an expe­ri­ence to be only joyful. The shofar blast reminds us of the moment when Abraham was standing with his knife raised over the altar to sacri­fice his only child, Isaac, and then lifted his eyes and saw the ram. The ram’s horn that we blow preserves that moment in our collec­tive memory, the moment when Abraham real­ized that he did not have to choose between his child and his god, the moment when Isaac real­ized that his father was not going to kill him.

Each of us can hear some­thing entirely different in the shofar blast, and despite the differ­ences, each of those expe­ri­ences has a piece of truth in it. Perhaps each year we hear different things in the echoing silence that follows the shofar blast. Perhaps one year I feel Isaac’s despair as he lay on the sacri­fi­cial altar under his father’s knife, and the next year I feel his deep but mixed relief at being spared. Maybe next year I’ll hear it with the relieved joy of Abraham when he heard the angel’s voice, raised his eyes, and saw the ram; or the agony of Sarah, who believed that Abraham really had killed her beloved son. Regardless, it is impor­tant that I listen for what I hear in this year’s shofar, at the same time that I recog­nize the truth of what other people hear. Abraham’s relief does not inval­i­date Sarah’s grief. Even if I am having a good year and feeling joy, it is impor­tant to remember that the person standing next to me this year may feel like the ram.

Last year when I listened to the shofar it felt wonderful – I nearly laughed out loud from the joy of that sound and how good it felt. But I also remember hearing the shofar the year that my grandma died, standing at Neilah with tears pouring down my face. A man who I did not know was standing in front of me, smiling broadly, but when he saw that I was in tears, he stepped back next to me and draped half of his tallis over my head, giving me both comfort and a little bit of privacy in which to mourn.

For three weeks before I came here, I heard the sound of the shofar every morning from my apart­ment in Jerusalem. Every night from my apart­ment, I can hear the bells from the Monastery in the Valley of the Cross, a ten-minute walk away. And more times than I can count in the last two years I have sat just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem and listened to the evening call to prayer rising from the Old City mosques. The sounds are very different, but each has unique truth and beauty which makes it worth listening to.

Last week, I listened to my great-aunt Helen as she revealed her fears to me, and she listened to my stories of expe­ri­ences that she has never had. We still don’t agree about a lot of things, but our under­standing of each other has deep­ened. Because we are able to listen to each other even when she is saying some­thing that I find diffi­cult or I am saying some­thing that she finds prob­lem­atic, our love for each other is more honest, and there­fore more real.

One of my rabbis explains the shofar: tekiyah is one whole blast; teruah is three broken segments; shevarim is a series of short, stac­cato blasts; and we end with another tekiyah, complete. Tekiyah: once I was whole. Teruah: Then I was broken. Shevarim: I was completely shat­tered. Tekiyah: In this new year, I hope to be whole once again. My prayer this year, for myself and my family, for all of you and your fami­lies, is that we will all be blessed with the ability to listen to each other, and that listening will lead to healing and whole­ness for all of us.

Bethesda-Chevy Chase Jewish Community Group (BCC-JCG)

(approx­i­mately 1,000 people attending)

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