The World To Come

Though hardly ever at a loss for words, a pair of adenocarcinomae have got me thinking earlier than usual about the Jewish high holidays. The yomim n’orim, the Days of Awe, are still months away. But it’s never to soon to start preparing. A holiday scene from a recent year will be my guide.

Erev Rosh Hashana, late September 2003 on East 78th Street: I counted seventy-five random Jews waiting patiently but nervously in a long line outside Orwasher’s Bakery. The family that has run this kosher establishment on the block for almost 100 years had been up all night turning out hundreds upon hundreds of traditional round new year’s challah and countless trays of delectable baked goods. One ingests mandelbrot, rugelekh, teyglekh and other edible talismans to insure a year of sweetness and health.

Lamdes, traditional religious learning, seemed to me to be in short supply on this grungy East Side block. My neighbors on line seemed so ordinary, so lacking in holiday spirit. Sound bites yielded little mention of anything except the material world. The street is bedecked with a ribbon of typical old Yorkville storefronts: moving supply stores, frame shops, appliance repair places and sidewalks scrubbed daily of their piles of dog-waste. Not a lot of trendy comes walking down the 300 block of East 78th Street on an average day, and that morning was no exception, except for one detail.

New York Magazine’s contribution to spiritual preparation for the high holidays that year was an article on the three best places in the City to buy traditional New Year’s challah. Orwasher’s topped the list, so this year’s crowd waited an hour or more for the gates to open.

Opportunities for spiritual awakening come in the strangest places. Contemplation of what the yomim n’orim can mean came to me easily when the opportunity presented itself. Though no sharp elbows were brandished in my section of the long queue, a neighbor to my rear did develop a mild case of shpilkes (sitting on pins and needles). That autumn I had gotten up my nerve and registered for Professor David Roskies’ Yiddish literature class at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The Gaon of modern Yiddishkayt never failed me. With the glow of enlightenment from the previous day’s class still warming my insides I dulled my nieghbor’s sharps with wisdom and kindness.

What if, after all this waiting, the white-haired man with the next right after mine asked me anxiously, What if they are all sold out ?

It will be fine, I said, It will be ok for both of us. I urged him to pray with me. What we’ll do, we’ll pray to G-d, a shehekheyanu we’ll pray, thanking him for allowing us to live to this day, to smell and enjoy the challah that we never actually got to taste. In that anticipation we are blessed just as if we made it to the head of the line and walked home with loaves tucked under our arms. No argument I got for that one, that pearl that rolled so easily off my the tongue.

Why, then why did it come so easily to me, standing there with the other Jews ? I truly believe it was the collective power of longing, and the shekhinah, G-d’s presence, that drew us to that block this morning, seeking connection and enrichment and insurance; assurance that by doing the ritual act we will somehow survive to the next year’s onset. Pitiful it was, my initial sense of the measure of spirituality on the block, impoverished my sense of the Yiddishkayt of the patient queue. They were there in abundance, disguised, as is the wont of G-d’s angels. Something wonderful drew us there in the guise of laziness. Store-bought is not always such a terrible thing…

But this year’s different, that’s for sure. Adenocarcinomae need their meal offering. Perhaps I’ll get up extra early and be first in line when the bakery doors open. I want the first one, the perfect one, the roundest and sweetest and luckiest. But I’m not so sure I’ll get to shul in time for the Yom Kippur morning service. Faking things never got me anywhere.

Many’s the time I’ve stood in the pews, rocking and rolling, davening my heart out. This year, 5767 by the Old Testament count, the Days of Awe have struck a new chord:

Never again, my prayers be silent.
Never again, my words will fail.
In the background, gently ticking,
Who by fire, who by hail…

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