When Yom Kippur Prayers Don’t Help With Grieving by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 2002 and the holiday began just a few surreal hours after I stood at his open grave. The shiva — the seven-day period of formal mourning — was cancelled to usher in the New Year. With a truncated shiva behind me, I debuted as a congregational mourner on Rosh Hashanah. It was the first time that I said the Mourner’s Kaddish. Arguably, the busiest day of the year in the synagogue, I stood up in front of 800 people to recite the Kaddish — effectively a love song to God whom I felt didn’t deserve my adoration.

The feminist, poet and liturgist Marcia Falk had a similar experience. In 1978, her father Abraham Abbey Falk died midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and her grieving was cut short by the advent of the Day of Atonement. After three days of shiva, Falk braced herself to mourn in a crowded synagogue. But the public face she tried to show faded away when she was confronted with the somber, terrifying words of the Un’taneh Tokef. The thousand year-old prayer, written by an unknown author in Northern Europe, is central to the Yom Kippur liturgy.

In a recent presentation at Brandeis University sponsored by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Falk noted that her ambivalent relationship with the Un’taneh Tokef was the inspiration for her latest book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, And Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season.. “The Un’taneh Tokef” she said, “is a listing, a repentance. The message it conveyed to me, five days after losing my father, was that if he had been a pious, righteous and repentant man the decree would have been averted and he would not be dead. No one actually believed that, but nonetheless the words were hurtful and unhelpful.”

Falk described the experience of hearing the traditional Un’taneh Tokef as one that left her feeling “hollow” and then angry.

I remember feeling similarly distressed that the Yom Kippur liturgy did not address my grief. For Falk, though, it led her to her life’s work as a composer of a new Hebrew liturgy — a liturgy expressed in a gender-free, non-hierarchical language. In prose and poetry and prayer, Falk jettisoned the image of God as father, king and ruler and brought a more inclusive voice to wide attention in her opus The Book of Blessings: A New Prayer Book for the Weekdays, the Sabbath and the New Moon..

“The Days Between”, however, focuses on the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur traditionally known as the Yamim Noraim — the Days of Awe. Falk calls these days by a gentler name: the Aseret Y’mey T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Turning, or Returning. In keeping with that welcoming spirit, there is no image of God as a judge or executioner in these pages. God is a spirit, a force, a benevolent presence in the world. In her rendition of the Un’taneh Tokef, Falk reflects her belief that “our mortality is the core of a spiritual life.” Her interpretation of the prayer begins: “Our lives are stories/inscribed in time./At the turning of the year/we look back, look ahead, see/that we are always/in the days between.

I was most affected by Falk’s rendering of Yizkor, the service of remembrance. She transforms Yizkor from a communal, one-size-fits-all liturgy into something more personal and meaningful by renaming it Ezkor, “I recall.” The traditional liturgy asks God to remember the souls of our dead, but Falk recasts the service as a personal journey in which recollections of our dead are individuated. “’I Recall,’ writes Falk, “offers a way to mourn while acknowledging the fullness of one’s experience.”

There are parallels between traditional liturgy and Falk’s prayerful renditions. For example, in Falk’s Ezkor service, her poem “Beneath the Shekhinah’s Wings” corresponds with Psalm 23. The phrase tahat kan’fey hash’khinah (beneath the Shekhina’s wings) is from El Maley Rahamim, God of Compassion, the hymn customarily recited at funerals.

As I read through Falk’s prose poems and “re-visionings” of the High Holiday prayers, I realized that she has written a machzor, a High Holiday prayer book, for the 21st century that is nothing short of revolutionary. This machzor begins with the beautiful, simple idea of exalting the world around us rather than limiting ourselves to the traditional extolling of God’s name as we do in the Mourner’s Kaddish. In “The Days Between” Falk encourages us to confront our mortality while delving into the richness with which we commemorate our humanity.

A traditional translation of the Un’taneh Tokef

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be created?
Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah (return and prayer and righteous acts)
deflect the evil of the decree.

This piece was originally published on the Sisterhood Blog of the Forward on September 30, 2014
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Goodbye and Thank You to My Jewish Advocate Readers

Dear Anna and Adam:

Like all of the parenting columns I’ve written for The Jewish Advocate, this final one is dedicated to you. For eight years, with grace, humor and love, you have allowed me to chronicle you growing up. I’ve chosen to end my run as the Advocate’s parenting columnist because like you, I’ve aged out of the subject. I no longer do the hands-on parenting I once did. Anna, you are away for most of the year at college and Adam, you are on the cusp of leaving for school. And you drive! I’m no longer in a carpool – once a natural incubator for nurturing so many of these essays. Your conversations in the back seat inspired me to look further into issues like bullying, adolescent relationships and the general angst which your age group comes by naturally. But most importantly, your thoughts and ideas moved me to look deeper into my soul. Writing about you has led me to what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls moments of “radical amazement.” Simple moments like watching each of you walk into school when you were little.

Anna, I marvel at the young woman you have become. You epitomize wisdom and empathy. When I started writing this column you were 12 years old. These past eight years you became a bat mitzvah, you graduated from high school and you went to college. Attached to those milestones were other significant events, about which I promised you I would never write. That promise is forever. But I admire how you have negotiated relationships and academics with equal aplomb.

Adam, you are a gentleman and a scholar. When you’re around you won’t let me carry the groceries or bring in the pails. You’re as equally comfortable playing video games as you are discussing metaphors in “The Great Gatsby.” You are also the bravest person I know. You have always been forthright about who you are. I was never prouder of you than when you came out this year with such poise and dignity. But I also love that you’re still very much a kid.Nothing makes me happier than when you ask to come into my bedroom to read near me. It’s the best kind of parallel playing!

PuertoRico

I also take my leave of Advocate readers during the High Holiday season. As you might remember from your day school education, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of repentance. Last year I did something a bit different to commemorate that time by participating in the 10Q Project. During those ten days, I answered an introspective series of daily emails from the folks at 10Q and Reboot, a Jewish cultural organization that seeks to reinvent and reimagine Jewish rituals and traditions. My answers were then locked in a virtual vault that will reopen three days before this coming Rosh Hashana. I thought it might be fun to answer a few of them here in relation to the parenting column and to you.

The first question was basic, expected, yet somehow hard to answer in the same way that writing this last column is turning out to be. “Describe a significant experience that has happened in the last year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful, relieved, resentful, inspired?” Among the significant experiences I’ve had with this column are invitations to talk to synagogue groups where – surprise – I talk about both of you! I’m so grateful to everyone who has followed my adventures in parenting. So grateful to people who have wished us well over the years. Without readers I’m just writing into a void. It thrills me that you and I are in the hearts of so many people.

Some of the 10Q questions went outside personal experience to “describe an event in the world that has impacted you this year. How? Why?” We talked a lot about the world, particularly about Israel, this past summer. Anna,you worried about how you would make the case for Israel on a college campus. Adam, you grappled with the events in Ferguson. As a family, we said Baruch Dayan Emet (words that are uttered upon hearing about a death) – God is the true judge – too many times in the past few months. You are young adults now with strong opinions of your own. My actions no longer make as deep an impression on you.You must decide for yourselves if God is the true judge or if you even believe in God.

But it was the 10Q question about the future that made me both anxious and hopeful. “Describe one thing you’d like to achieve by this time next year. Why is this important to you?” It’s time for me to take the energy that I’ve put into this column into other projects and causes that are equally dear to me.

But mostly, when I think about the future I think about both of you. I pray for all of us to be healthy, creative and productive. I now realize that has always been the subtext of my columns about the two of you. Everything I do, I do with you in mind. You are my muses. You are the loves of my life. And I thank God every moment of every day for you.

All My Love,

Mom

Lasts and Firsts by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Welcome to the 2014-2015 school year.

Senior year has finally arrived in our house. Ever since Adam entered his preparatory school, we’ve been counting backwards from Class VI. And now here we are among the parents and members of Class I. For Adam and us, his parents, it will be a year of lasts and firsts. This will be the last time I launch a child of mine into the school year from our home. The next stop is college. This will be the last time I attend a back-to-school night; I won’t meet his professors in college. This will be the last year I cheer from the sidelines during one of Adam’s cross-country races. He probably won’t be running competitively in college.

But it will also be a year of firsts for Adam. Most notably he’ll be going through the arduous process of applying to colleges. We’ve done the prerequisite legwork of the college applicant, dutifully making our way to look at schools. There’s no clear favorite, although parents and child have their opinions. Having gone through this before, I try very hard to keep my opinions to myself. I work on remembering that this is Adam’s life and that I must wholeheartedly support him much the same way I do during a running meet.

Grace—I think that will be the watchword to which I return over and over this year. The grace to understand that, perhaps for the first time in his young life, Adam must have significant control over his decisions. The grace to appreciate the decisions he makes. The grace to accept those decisions. Grace is an odd word for a Jewish parent. Ask a Jew if grace is an overtly Jewish concept and the answer is most likely no. But in Judaism, the idea of grace is bound up in G-d’s infinite mercy. Rabbi Rami Shapiro who wrote a book on the subject of grace in Judaism notes that grace encompasses, “G-d’s unlimited, unconditional, unconditioned, and all-inclusive love for all creation.”

I’m surprised that my thoughts have turned to G-d in this essay. What does G-d have to do with the college process—G-d who has bigger and more important issues to which to attend. But I must confess that I saw flashes of G-d’s grace in the required autobiographical essay that Adam wrote for his college counselor. Note this is not the common application essay—the autobiographical essay was strictly written as informational for the people writing his school and teacher recommendations. And yet, it was profoundly eye-opening for me.

I knew that Adam and Anna got along well—in fact I have often marveled over how close they are. They are, in many respects, best friends. But this was driven home for me when Adam’s essay described the way Anna influenced many of his decisions ranging from playing soccer and singing in the school choir, to the way she treats people. As the older sibling, Anna has had a profound influence on Adam’s derech eretz—literally, the ethics that he holds dear in life. He wrote, “My sister showed me that it is sometimes more important to listen to your friends than talk. She was nice to me and in turn encouraged me to be nice as well. She taught me how to retort with wit, how to lose with grace and how to generally function as a person. She taught me how to be a confidant, by placing her trust in me, and in turn never told my secrets. “

After reading Adam’s words about Anna I thought, yes, Ken and I have done our jobs as parents. As I read on, I was buoyed by Adam’s descriptions of his late night talks with Ken about science. “My father and I had this tradition when I was younger,” Adam writes. “He would sit in the rocking chair in my room and talk about science with me. He would entertain my questions about space and anatomy, which I used to think were the only important parts of science. He fostered in me a scientific curiosity that remains to this day. I credit him with my infatuation with all things scientific. He encouraged me to always ask questions and to learn what was really going on around me.”

I think I was most surprised about Adam’s observations of me. It did not escape Adam’s notice that I have a difficult relationship with my mother. But he lauded me for sticking with her and doing my best to make her comfortable and happy. I was touched that, as young as he is, he appreciated that, “my mother never told me to distance myself from my grandmother. She told me to always love her and respect her. She taught me how to be patient.”

Adam’s essay reflects the best of lasts and firsts. Through his observations, I understood that this may be one of the last times that his parents have such a primary influence on his life, But it’s also a first—the first time that I recognized my son had the grace and empathy of the adult I hoped he would become.