Note: This article was published in the August/September 2021 issue of The Scroll.
I am writing this article in Boston, MA. Chana and I are here on an abbreviated vacation. Naturally, we have walked the Freedom Trail, visited Paul Revere’s house, seen the great North Church of “One if land, two if by sea” fame, shopped at Faneuil Hall Marketplace (and saw some interesting street shows), etc. You know the drill. Boston is an historical town and I happen to love history. We have done a lot of walking, talking, thinking (not as much eating as you would think, thank G-d), and, overall, have been enjoying an extended 5 day weekend.
On our first day, we made it our business to visit the New England Holocaust Memorial which is located along the Freedom Trail. It’s something we do. When we visit a city, we make it our business to visit their Holocaust Memorial if they have one. We have been to New York’s, Miami’s, and now Boston’s. (And yes, we have been to Yad Vashem but I was listing American destinations). To be honest, it was not nearly as impressive as some of the others we have been to. I think Miami held the most meaning for us, other than Yad Vashem. I shared a few words in a Facebook live session when we were in Miami. This memorial is 6 glass towers, one for each of the death camps (Aushwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka). I have to admit that I was a little impressed that they singled out these death camps from the other concentration camps. I have seen places where all the camps are just considered “concentration camps” without making the distinction between the Konzentrationslager (concentration camp) and the Vernichtungslager (extermination camp).
Overall, though, I was unimpressed. But I wanted this moment to be meaningful. It had to be, otherwise why was I there?
My first act was to take off my cap, which I wear outside of the home base of New York and New Jersey because I do not want to deal with anti-Semites, and put on my kippa. At that moment, I felt ashamed of the cap and I was not going to hide my Jewishness in this place. If anyone was going to hassle me because of the Yarmulke on my head, let them try. In this place, I was JEWISH and to h*ll with anyone who had a problem with that.
As I walked slowly through the memorial, I began to chant to myself the memorial prayer, the Kel Malei Rachamim, for those fallen in the Holocaust. I didn’t care if anyone heard me, and I am sure some people did although I did it in a low voice. I chanted it slowly, as I would in Shul and I walked through the entire memorial, on which uncounted tattoo numbers were inscribed, and read all the stories and messages. I noted the name of each death camp, one for each tower, as I walked through them. I noted the wisps of steam coming from beneath each tower as if to remember the smoke from the chimneys of the crematoria. When I got to the end, I was nearing the end of the prayer and I came to an inscription bearing the immortal quote from Pastor Martin Niemoller:
“First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Trade Unionists.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
As I left the memorial, I stopped and looked back. I looked at Chana and I said, “sometimes you have to make your own meaning.”
Although the site of the memorial did not stir me, I was able to add the meaning to stir myself by reciting the Kel Malei Rachamim.
We are on the cusp of the High Holiday Season. The services are much longer than usual and their content is, to many of us, unfamiliar. For me, as the Cantor, the prayers are old friends. The words, their origin and the meaning behind them fill me with great feeling during the season. They stir memories of my father as he chanted them, they convey meaning to me, speak of my relationships with G-d and my fellow man, and remind me of the life I should lead. I usually will leave a Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur service exhausted from the prayers, and not only because of the physical efforts involved. Great emotion can be exhausting.
I know it is not this way for all of us. The language can be confusing and the infrequency with which the prayers are recited make it all the more difficult. But there is meaning to be had.
I believe that the intent of the High Holidays is not the words we say, but the meaning we derive from them. Even if you do not speak Hebrew, or even if you cannot read Hebrew, there is meaning to be had in these services. You can read the English. You can look at the commentary in the High Holiday prayer book, the Machzor. (Here’s a little life pro tip: I greatly prefer the Artscroll Machzor for its commentary [I also think the Hebrew font is much more readable].)
As Cantor, I try to imbue the meaning and emotions of the day into the chanting of the prayers. If that doesn’t work for you, there are many other ways to find meaning in the services. Coming to Shul on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur has to be about more than greeting old friends. It is meant to touch us to our very souls and remind us of our place in this world. Open your hearts and minds and reach out for that meaning in whatever way works for you. That’s what these days are all about.
Chana and I would like to wish all of you a K’siva Vachasima Tova or, as they say, A Gut Gebenctht Yor.