To my Jewish friends, I unapologetically acknowledge I’m a High Holiday Jew. To my Gentile friends I explain that in my religion it is every individual’s prerogative to worship God as he or she chooses; consequently, there are as many kinds of Judaism as there are Jews. That suits me. My way is to disqualify all meddlers and keep it between what’s in my head and what’s in my heart.
If one of my favorite aspects of Judaism is its limitless array of choices, one of my sources of wonderment is how all of its people tend always to answer a question with a question. Even one put to oneself. Why, I could ask, only at this time of year?—but I, of course, can anticipate my answer: Do you know a better time of year? Isn’t it because you always discover something new? A line in the prayer book you’ve been reading or reciting for years suddenly taking on deeper meaning? Incisive or provocative thoughts expressed in a rabbi’s sermon? Or, as happened on one momentous occasion, something so unexpected, so inordinate, so heart-rending and indelible that eight years later it’s still difficult to relate dry-eyed.
The congregation I don’t belong to but collegially join for the High Holidays is that of an American Reform synagogue. To my delight, it is traditionally free-thinking and liberal-minded. For most congregants, a half-day is sufficient to celebrate the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, but the most solemn day of the year, the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, requires a full day.
A full day for Upper West Siders requires a break, one hour and fifteen minutes, between morning and afternoon services. Many years ago, the synagogue introduced a novel program, the “study group,” to fill the time productively (for Upper West Siders).
On Tuesday, September 18, 2001—exactly seven days after 9/11—we reentered the synagogue to find a different kind of “study group” seated in a row of eight chairs on the bima, the raised platform in front of the ark. Six men and two women—five rabbis and three cantors who had conducted the morning service visibly in mourning and in anguish. One of the women, a cantor, had unavoidably wept openly every time she sang.
The topic was 9/11. The rabbi in the first chair, a noted scholar, spoke in mature tones and cerebral terms. He was followed by another rabbi and another, faces troubled, voices lowered, emotions guarded. So it continued until it became the fifth man’s turn, a rabbi visiting from another congregation, middle aged, face and spectacles round, nondescript. Until he spoke the unspeakable. In sorrow and censure, one sentence. “Today I think it’s God who should apologize.”
Stunned silence. A Day of Awe.