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Yom Kippur, 1970


"Yom Kippur always brings back memories of my aliyah"

7th of Tishrei, 5731. A family of Americans, we came to live with Auntie Rivka in her little house in Geula. It was a stone house with iron shutters on top of a kiosk, just down the block from Kikar HaShabbat. I always thought that Kikar HaShabbat was so named because that's where everyone would meet for their Sabbath walk, and where they could shout "Shabbes!" at the passing cars. The "Shabbes"-movement was just taking off. But then, it was aimed at taxi drivers and a few select car owners who were rich enough to afford a car but ignorant enough to drive near the district that was cordoned off for Shabbat.

There were shuls and minyanim everywhere. Behind our house was the Hebron Yeshiva. I remember falling asleep on Yom Kippur night listening to the yeshiva boys next door singing "Yigdal." The streets were silent. No ambulances, no taxis, not even by mistake, it was Yom Kippur in Jerusalem, and we were a part of it.

We were thrown into the Sephardic tradition because we hadn't bought seats anywhere else. So, we went to pray with Auntie Rivka in the Persian synagogue, in the Bucharan Quarter, where tickets for the high holidays were unheard of.

The Persian shuls had benches all around the bima. We walked through a courtyard shaded by a lemon tree and climbed up the stone stairs to get to the women's section. We sat on turquoise benches padded with old striped mattresses. The thought crossed my mind that some members of the congregation might spend the night there.

We were used to a very formal Ashkenazi service, there was the cantor and there was the congregation and everyone knew their place. However, in the Persian synagogue there was a lot of audience participation. I found out later that that was due to the fact that some of the worshipers couldn't read, and in order to avoid embarrassing them, most of the service was sung aloud. To this day, it is a beautiful tradition.

During the Torah reading there was a lot of noise and calling out. People were bidding for the aliyas. The women would push back the curtained mechitza to get in their bids, haggling with the gabbai over the price of the honor. There was a lot of laughter and talking. It was not like any shul I had ever attended. Every fluorescent light had a dedication written on it in honor of someone's dear departed. How much did one of those cost, I wondered? Probably the price of a light bulb.

The break between Musaf and Minha was a generous one - long enough for a nap. We discovered that fasting in the cool mountain air of Jerusalem was easy.

At dusk, more women crowded upstairs and pulled the curtain open to hear "Ne'ila" and the blowing of the shofar. This year in Jerusalem. I thought of where I'd spent last Yom Kippur and all the ones before that, sitting with my friends, in our air-conditioned NYC synagogue. They wore their designer sneakers, and I, my $ 2.99 Keds. (I told you it was a long time ago.)

And here I was, upstairs, behind a cheap net curtain in the Persian synagogue in Jerusalem, the cool evening air blowing a lemon-scented breeze through the windows, looking down on the red roofs of the houses of the Bukharan Quarter.

One of the women offered me a handkerchief to smell. "To revive you after the fast." I took a whiff. It was rose water. Others offered hadassim (myrtle leaves) as they chanted havdalah downstairs.

After a few rounds of Eliyahu Hanavi, it was time to go to Auntie Rivka's to break our fast. My first Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. Despite everything, I was home.

That night, I had trouble sleeping. At Auntie Rivka's there was no television, no stereo, and no magazines. Her contact with the outside world was an old wooden radio. She had put a flowered cushion on top, to make it into a seat, that's how big it was. I turned the radio on quietly hoping to catch some familiar music: Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, anything. I didn't care if it was from the 1970s, 60s or 50s.

The lights lit up behind the panel and the radio hummed as it warmed up. I turned the dial to one of the three Israeli radio stations, skipping over the Arab music, and all of a sudden, I found it: not the Beatles, not rock, not English. It was a preview of the songs for the upcoming Hassidic Song Festival. And there in my cold bed, in a little house in Geula, I heard songs whose words came from the Torah, or the Siddur. But, the one I remember most was:

על שלושה דברים העולם עומד

"Upon Three Things the World Stands," from Pirkei Avot. At that moment I didn't care if I never heard another song from the English hit parade again. I was in Israel, listening to the words of the Mishna being sung on the radio. This was home. 



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