Jewish Stuff

The Book Is Closed. Or Is it?

When I was a little girl, a Sunday School teacher told me that on Rosh Hashanah, G-d opened a big book that had everyone’s names in it, young and old.

My teacher explained how, each year, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, G-d decided who would live and who would die in the upcoming year. And how. By fire or by water; by plague or by earthquake. The list went on forever.

I remember imagining a really old, wrinkled guy in white robes sitting at a silver desk perched on top of clouds. In his smooth, shaky hand, he held a gold pen that he used to cross-out people’s names.

On The High Holy Days, I dressed in the fancy clothes that my mother had laid out for me and sat in temple all day with my family.

And as the adults chanted words in English and Hebrew, I played nervously with the knots on my father’s prayer shawl.

And I looked around and wondered who was not going to be there the next year.

Because it was a pretty scary idea: that G-d was making decisions all the time based on how we behaved.

(‘Cuz I wasn’t always the best little girl.)

But there was a lot more to that prayer: a part that I didn’t figure out until years later.

The prayer reads:

But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree! This is Your glory: You are slow to anger, ready to forgive. G-d, it is not the death of sinners You seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live.

Until the last day You wait for them, welcoming them as soon as they turn to You (314).

Those words are a gift.

An exhale.

They mean that if we really have open hearts and want to do right for all the messed up shizz we have done throughout the year, through prayer and acts of love and kindness, we can change a course previously set in motion.

Jews have ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to try to set things right.

And G-d is reasonable.

Like a good parent.

For example, when your kid messes up and you calmly explain: “Listen, I asked you to clean your room, but you ignored me. If you clean your room, take out the garbage, wash the dishes, and walk the dog, you can have your iPod back tomorrow.”

G-d is cool like that. G-d does not say:

You were bad so I’m putting you out of your house, buddy. Nothing you can do about it now, sucker!

Not at all.

G-d wants us to recognize and admit that we have goofed up during the year.

And we can fix these things.

We can apologize.

To have that chance, to be able to fix what has been broken, is something I take pretty seriously.

There is a scene from the movie The Jazz Singer (with Neil Diamond) that I can’t watch without crying.

It is a scene that shows a little of what Yom Kippur is about.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the film, Yussel Rabinovitch, the son of an Orthodox cantor, decides to leave his religious tradition and follow his heart.

He leaves his synagogue and the expectations of his family to continue as a cantor. (Whaaat?)

He leaves his childhood sweetheart, Rivka. (Unheard of.)

He drives across country because he wants to sing popular music. Non-religious music. (He’s meshuganah.)

He changes his name, loses his Jewish identity, and becomes Jess Robin.

He meets another woman. (Oy.)

She’s not Jewish. (Double oy.)

They fall in love.

At some point, Jess is in New York and he runs into one of his father’s old friends who tells him that his father has been ill.

The doctors won’t let Cantor Rabinovitch sing on Yom Kippur due to his high blood pressure.

We learn that a Rabinovitch has always sung on Kol Nidre for — like — 912 generations. (Or at least 3.)

But Jess Robin humbly returns to his roots and becomes Yussel Rabinovitch for Yom Kippur.

Even though his father has declared him dead.

Even though he has been excommunicated.

He goes back to apologize the only way he can.

In song.

(Note: I start crying at 1:24.)

This is what we are supposed to do.

(No, not the singing thing!)

We are supposed to humble ourselves — to those we have hurt, to G-d — in that kind of honest way.

The High Holy Days give Jews a chance to reflect on the wrongs we’ve committed to those around us, to make amends for those wrongs, and face the new year with gratitude, and hope that we’ve been given a chance to start anew.

Bottom line: We have all sinned.

We are human.

This year, the fasting is over.

The table has been cleared.

What’s done is done.

The Book is closed.

I’ve done what I can.

I guess this is where the faith part comes in.

Now the trick is to be a better me in 5772.

Now listen to Babs sing and tell me what you feel when you hear her voice.

Stern, Chaim. Ed. Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe. 2. New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1985. 313-4. Print.

© Renée Schuls-Jacobson 2011

34 thoughts on “The Book Is Closed. Or Is it?

  1. The really hard part is when you try to be better and make amends and the people you have hurt will not forgive you. You have done all you can do but it’s not enough. That’s hard. Then you realize how much pain you’ve caused and how much hurt. You just have to wait and hope that one day they’ll forgive you. You know you’ve done the right thing asnd G-d forgives you even if they don’t. But it’s not easy.

    1. The rabbi talked about that yesterday. He said we are obligated to try three times; after that, if you have really tried to apologize and the other person will not forgive you — well, that is his or her perogative. But you have done all you can do — and you would be considered “good” in G-d’s eyes.

      You cannot control others or their reactions.

      But I know what you mean. It is hard to admit you could have hurt someone so deeply that person would not forgive you. But it happens. I wish you peace.

  2. Excellent post, Renée. I was trying to explain Yom Kippur to one of my kids yesterday; I think I’ll just have her read this instead. I’ve never seen The Jazz Singer but now I’ll have to check it out. Barbara Streisand’s voice always sounds like hope to me.

    1. Warning: The Jazz Singer is a weeper.

      JM: I don’t know how well I did explaining Yom Kippur, but it is a holiday about accepting personal responsibility for the wrongs we have done, whether intentional or unintentional. It is about atonement and making peace within the community and within one’s own heart.

      I love you for trying to explain it.

  3. I love this post! I am curious as to why you didn’t spell out God? At first I didn’t understand what you were talking about, until I took a second sip of my coffee and the caffeine rushed through my veins, jump-starting my brain! ; )

    1. I grew up in a Modern Orthodox synagogue which taught me to never write out G-d’s name on anything — because it could be destroyed.

      This post could be deleted. People reading it as email can delete it.

      And that would be blasphemy.

      Weird, huh?

      We now belong to a Reform synagogue (much more relaxed in terms of rules), and this is not an issue. Still, I can’t do it. I was front-loaded in a certain way. 😉

  4. A beautiful post. I love how you include this so matter-of-factly with your ideas about teaching. Well, of course, you are teaching here, too.

    It’s never too late to try to approach someone, G-d or other people, to reconcile. In fact, according to Jewish tradition, the gates don’t close all the way on Yom Kippur, either, but there’s another window of opportunity until Hoshana Raba, which is the last day of the upcoming holiday of Sukkot (before Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah).

    And of course, it’s never too late (or early) to approach anyone sincerely, is it?

    1. Absolutely. And that is, perhaps, the most true and most beautiful lesson of Yom Kippur: every day should be lived like it is Yom Kippur. Because as you said, we should always remember that we always (and should) approach someone that we feel we might have hurt and apologize.

      Which is not an easy thing to do.

      Because they could say no, right? That’s our fear.

  5. Thank you for educating me gently and beautifully. I now must see the Jazz Singer. (How have I not seen this?)

    Forgiveness is one of the most powerful things to give and to receive. I think it’s inextricably tied to love.

    I’d write more, but that’s enough for now.

    Thanks, my friend. And happy New Year.

    1. Hi Leanne!

      I challenge you to get through The Jazz Singer without weeping.

      Forgiveness is a powerful thing, yes. And it is tied to love. The thing about Judaism is that we are obligated to try to apologize 3 times, but if the other will not accept our true, heartfelt apology, we are absolved.

      Some people hold grudges over the smallest things, and they hold them for life. There is not a lot we can do if a person won’t forgive us. But G-d will know that we have tried.

      I hope you are having a happy Thanksgiving up there in Calgary. I like how your Thanksgiving and our new year overlap. That feels right, IYKWIM. And I know you do.

  6. As Leanne just put it, “educating beautifully and gently” – perfect description of your lovely post.

    I don’t subscribe to any religion, but embrace others’ beliefs wholeheartedly when they demonstrate acceptance, humanity and humility. 🙂

    As for forgiveness, that’s a very powerful lesson. I think sometimes forgiving oneself is the ultimate hurdle!

    1. Hi Jules:

      I love to learn about other people’s religious beliefs. I find faith a fascinating topic, and I think it is sad that we have somehow made it a taboo topic.

      There are so many opportunities for dialogue that are lost because we aren’t allowed to talk about religion in school. Not in any meaningful way, anyhow.

      And you are right: forgiving oneself is often the hardest nut to crack. Some people spoke about that yesterday as well. That is part of this whole thing, too. Say you were in an abusive relationship: well, you have to forgive yourself for choosing that relationship and promise not to return to that kind of place. We can ask for strength. We can apologize for not thinking better of ourselves. Funky, huh?

    1. It is so hard to explain different traditions when you get into faith, is it not? Because really, when you get down to it, don’t they all sound a little cray-zee?

      Bottom line: After fasting, we eat a lot of really good food — and we are all together as family. 😉

  7. I’m Protestant, and I love this time of year and the concept of these Holy Days, as far as I understand them. To me, this always seems like the New Year, much more than does Jan 1. One of the best aspects of this season is that the classical radio stations play Jewish sacred music, and it’s so beautiful. I lived in Los Angeles and worked in the entertainment industry for many years. In that industry, people mix working and social relationships, so you have friends as long as you have a good job. 🙂 One disappointment I had was that in all that time, with all those Jewish colleagues and neighbors, no one ever invited me to worship with them. I’ve never quite understood why. I would have been respectful and grateful, but maybe that’s not the vibe they got from me.

    Lovely, lovely traditions. Thank you for sharing with us. It’s a sweet and gracious thing to do.

    1. Texanne:

      I have to admit, I have never invited anyone non-Jewish to come with me to synagogue for a regular service. Maybe it is because of the Hebrew, and I have assumed that people would not understand or feel comfortable because they would not understand the meanings behind the prayers.

      But you are right; the music transcends and — of course — the prayer book is transcribed into English. I will consider this for the upcoming year. And I would gladly have someone join me, just as I love to go to church with friends.

      So thank you for teaching ME something today. 😉

  8. Hi – it’s me, your Christian friend. Letting you know that the trick isn’t to be a better you – because G-d already did all the work. Yeshua fulfilled all the over 300 prophecies concerning the Mashiach. He died for you on the cross. Because none of us can ever be good enough to meet G-d’s standard of perfection. His blood was poured out on the Mercy Seat, for all generations. He is the one you are looking for. 🙂

    1. We actually discussed this at temple in a break away session on forgiveness.

      This is one of the places where we diverge in our views. Jews, of course, are still waiting for the Messiah. I understand how wonderful it must be to believe that G-d already did all the work when Jesus died on the cross. I understand this belief.

      But Jews have a different interpretation of Genesis. We have a different doctrine. We have this thing with personal accountability. (Maybe this explains why there are so many Jewish lawyers?) We have to try to be better. Because for us, this is it. We have an obligation to make this world better because this is our only chance. We have to look at ourselves and ask forgiveness not so much from G-d: G-d is always there. But to each other, when we have been unkind, well… we have a responsibility to acknowledge it and try to fix it. And actions speak louder than words, so words alone don’t do it. Acts of love and kindness show a person’s true spirit.

      And you are right, he is the one we are waiting for. Still. 🙂

      Thank you for the opportunity for dialogue, Brother #4.

  9. I like your attitude about religion, it’s important to you but doesn’t seem to be all encompassing as it does with some people which can sometimes make other people uncomfortable. Me on the other hand, I will admit to being 100% non-religious, but I guess I’ve still turned out okay. Interestingly I find listening to religious sermons (the daily life and motivational parts) very interesting. Religious leaders are perhaps the best motivational speakers out there!! Anyhow, I think the more important thing is that you’ve developed important and valued traditions within your family and that lasts a lifetime. Your comment about not ever inviting anyone to a synagogue was interesting to me. As a kid I attended many Jewish ceremonies and bar mitzvahs with friends, even occasionally wearing a yarmulke (sp??). I always found them fascinating even though I never knew what was really going on.

    1. Hey Cowboy Steve!

      (Okay, it’s getting weird calling you Cowboy. I might have to drop that. Let me know what you think.)

      Like you, I really enjoy listening to great orators and some of the best are religious speakers. I like going to different places of worship: mosques, churches of every denomination. My religion is part of who I am, but it is not all of who I am. I am proud of our traditions, the rituals, how we pass our culture down from generation to generation despite adversity.

      You are right; lots of non-Jewish folks come to temple during bar and bat mitzvahs. We certainly have plenty of non-Jewish folks on our A list, but — as you said — it’s not like someone is standing there with cue cards explaining what the heck is going on or anything. Which is really too bad. Because it’s not supposed to be about the party.

      It’s a moment of choice really.

      Boys and girls become bar and bat mitzvah. They are sons and daughters of the Commandments. And they get to choose how much (or how little) they want to observe as they are considered adults in the synagogue. Which is kinda cool. Parents always hope their children will want to stay, but these days 1 out of 2 marry out of the religion. That’s the reality. So I feel uber-special, being part of the .1% of the world’s population.

      Nice spelling with the word yarmulke, by the way. You can also call them kippah (singular) or kippot (plural). So like, when you are bored in temple, you could count all the blue kippot. Or all the red kippot. Or all the Buffalo Bills kippot. Yup, they exist. 😉

  10. Oh, boy, I love this post. I love that I’m reading it even as I count my blessing this (Canadian) Thanksgiving. For along with the counting of blessings comes the counting of the failings and this year, I have many of those.

    I have never seen The Jazz Singer but now feel that I must seek it out and pour some wine and let those hymns wash over me. It reminds me of The Chosen by Chaim Potok – it must just be coincidental that he is also Jewish.

    I love that these Holy Days seem – to me at least – to be about acceptance and forgiveness- sought and given. What a gift.

    1. Liz, as I said to Leanne (above), I love that (Canadian) Thanksgiving overlapped with (Jewish) new year this year. That just felt right. Yom Kippur is definitely a time to give thanks for blessings as we strive to be better in the upcoming year.

      I have read (and taught) The Chosen many times. And yes, the themes are absolutely similar. When I taught it in New Orleans, I offered my students the opportunity to compare some aspect of The Jazz Singer to Potok’s The Chosen. I did a similar thing with Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and Malcolm X’s Autobiography (as told to Alex Haley). Those projects were always the best!

      I hope you are enjoying your weekend. 😉 Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  11. Great post. I always wonder the same things when I sit in services. This year I was thinking a lot about where I was last year at this time and how I’ve taken steps to change a lot of things to make my life better. I do wonder what things will hold for me this coming year. I guess time will tell.

  12. I love this as much as I love chatting with you, and that is a lot.

    I, too, wonder about people who die between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I actually meant to ask my rabbi his take on that, which I may now do via email . . .

  13. I’m reading this a year later, to prepare for today’s post. I love the sincerity of this, that you put the time and thought into the holiday and into sharing it. Thank you. . . and now back to the future. . . .

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