When my grandma died, I stopped believing in G-d. It wasn’t a conscious choice, but sometime in the year or so after, I realized it was a slow departure from a path. The longer she was gone, the less motivation I had to find my way back. Jewish holidays lost their reason for being. Without Grandma and Grandpa, our family was a cake longing for its blessing of icing. And everyone knows, a cake only exists because of its need of frosting. We tried to change the meals and the traditions so that they didn’t resemble the holidays as they once were, but the holidays as they were; though we couldn’t help lamenting how few place settings we needed.
Eventually, I stopped going to synagogue because without Grandma, every prayer reminded me of her, pulling out hard candy that we unsuccessfully tried to sneak in our mouths without anyone else seeing. Or the way she patted my hand when I helped her navigate the small Hebrew print of the Parsha. I even missed the way she’d roll her eyes when mom and I arrived barely past 10 a.m.
Ironically, when my husband and I first moved to Lexington over the summer, one of the first people I contacted to learn about my new community was the rabbi at the Reform temple. No other move in my many moves had ever constituted an email to a rabbi. What I wanted though was community. I was one of those folks who identified more with the phrase “culturally Jewish,” rather than “religiously Jewish.” We went to Friday night services — sparsely attended — and even though there were promises for future dinners, nothing materialized. When the High Holidays rolled around in early fall, I had wanted to use my yogic spirituality as an excuse to abstain from services, yet in the back of my mind was my grandmother’s voice: no good Jew would abstain from high holiday worship. More internet searching brought me to the Lexington Havurah, which offered more of an informal environment, as members met in each other’s homes and services were lay-led.
When Gail Cohen told me services were held in the home of Stanley (my grandfather’s name) and Judy Saxe, in their screened-in porch overlooking a lake, I knew this would be a friendly place for my non-Jewish husband to learn and become part of the community that, even though I had drifted, was the same community I wanted for our future children. I wanted them to have the values I grew up with — the ones Grandma and Grandpa lived by: being responsible for one’s self and one’s community, caring for the world and all its beings. Gail had said she hoped we wouldn’t mind being the youngest people in the room besides a few visiting grandchildren. I assured her, we’d be fine. What I didn’t say was that I quietly longed for the friendship of adopted grandparents.
At the Saxes, I surprised myself and my husband when I balled my way through Rosh Hashanah services. Regardless, after services were over and it was time for the meal, everyone surrounded us and made sure to introduce themselves. They were a lively and intellectual group, most being retired from the university where my husband works, so Trey was a big hit. His dry wit and academic affability is remarkably Jewish. And I got the feeling that somehow we were fulfilling some sort of longing in their hearts as well.
We arrived a little late for Yom Kippur services, ten days later. Prayers for putting on Tallit were just underway. Judy motioned for me to get one. I had never worn one before. It wasn’t part of the tradition for women in my conservative midwestern synagogue, though many of my friends from the Brooklyn Havurah wore them. I picked the one that looked like the one my grandfather wore, the one Trey and I had married under. Judy lifted my hair so that the tallis rested on the back of my neck before it draped down my shoulders. Before I knew it, she was back in her seat and I was sitting with my first tallis. Though thin, it somehow made me feel warmer and protected. Present in a way that I hadn’t been before in services. Maybe this was why my grandfather never participated in the idle whisperings between my grandma, my mother, and I.
When my uncle mailed my grandpa’s tallis to me for our wedding, the first thing I did was smell it. I buried my face in it and let my hands run over its dark blue velvet home. I had never thought of wrapping myself in it. I attached it to dow rods with my blue hair rubber bands and built our chuppah. On our wedding day, it billowed over us — our two best friends holding on tightly. Strong and fragile, a shelter, but open on all sides. This intimacy had been so profound, but so different from this tallis now wrapped around me like a blanket.
I felt its presence even after services. While driving through our neighborhood behind the school bus that stopped every quarter of a mile, on my way to my traditional solitary Yom Kippur hike. Instead of my standard annoyance, I felt the warmth as children ran into their parents’ arms. Dogs in hot pink sweaters, the boys picking up sticks on their way home. And then, two minutes later, in the aftermath of a car accident off New Circle Road. I paused in the Speedway parking lot and said a prayer for those impacted in the recent accident, this morning’s liturgy unfolding in afternoon sunlight. Who by bus, who by ambulance? How close we are to death, how close to life.
It is said that we have closer access to G-d during these Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I would like to think that in some way, it was my grandma’s doing, the embrace of the tallis, a reminder of her presence, G-d’s presence, or just compassionate awareness of how much we all need to be held.