I never bought the whole iconography. An old guy who looks like Charlton Heston. A bunch of fat babies flying in the air with tiny harps. My relationship with God is more transactional. If there is a spirit guide or a life beyond what we know, I want to hold a winning hand. So I do what most Jews do. Attend synagogue on special occasions. Cook a seder. Eat Chinese food on Sundays.
For sixty- nine years my routine had always been the same. But thanks to Covid, normal was upended. The pandemic struck and going to religious services was taboo. When the High Holidays rolled around, I felt surprisingly unanchored. Something important was missing. I felt panicky and jumpy, lost and afraid–as if I misplaced my keys.
My pilgrimages to temple have marked every passage of my life. Growing up in Miami, I never learned to read or write Hebrew–in the 1950’s women rarely did. Instead my older brother and sister dragged me to the neighborhood shul. Sitting ramrod straight in my best dress, I memorized the tunes and enjoyed the performance. The men beating their breasts, bowing their knees, swaying. The women in their fancy dresses and brimmed hats watching and whispering. While my father preferred to pray at home, my mother cooked. The three of us would come home to a house brimming with brisket and bay leaves and freshly baked bread. That was part of the holidays, too.
When I was in college in Ann Arbor, my friend Warren and I went to services together. Warren’s long dead now after suffering from kidney cancer for a horrific 15 years. His parents were Holocaust survivors who settled in Long Island. His dad was a baker from a long line of bakers, and each holiday a care package would arrive in the mail. Vanilla cookies with dried cherries in the middle. Mandelbreit. Marzipan. Warren’s Dad always sent enough to share.
Then I married. My husband Michael and his parents rejected their Judaism flat. A Christmas tree in December. A slice of ham on every plate. My father-in-law loved to antagonize his mother, and the more he rebelled–the long hair, the pierced ear, the hippie clothes– the more aggravated she became. For over a dozen years, she and I had a yearly ritual. I’d drive to her apartment, find her waiting at the curbside, help her maneuver into my car. Then the two of us would sit side-by-side at the synagogue, leaning on each other, supporting each other, so close our hips would touch.
How she’d weep! Holding my hand, her chin would shake and her lips would tremble. And then on the ride home, she’d tell me for the hundredth time about her parents and her grandparents and their life in Kyiv ages ago.
Life swings like a pendulum and by the time we had children, Michael’s views on religion had changed. Maybe God’s like a fine wine, he decided. We should at least provide the kids a taste. So together as a family we observed. We lit the menorah. We hid matzah under the couch. On Fridays, we lit candles.
I suppose you don’t miss what you’ve never known. Whenever we went to temple, Michael just sat there. Faith was like a foreign language. He had never been exposed and at this late date– had no interest in learning. For him, the prayer book was like any other book. A bit of mystery, a bit of history, and a lot of bunk. I couldn’t argue with his reasoning. How do you touch the intangible? How do you calibrate the obscure?
Then Covid entered our lives. My daughter’s job was put on hiatus and Michael’s office closed. No longer could we visit our son and his family in Maryland. Death was a hand on our shoulders, a shadow in the doorway, a neighbor knocking down the hall. I found myself searching for reassurance. I missed my rituals. I ached for my routine. And for the first time in a long time– I needed to believe in belief.
We decided to weather the pandemic in our home in Jackson Hole. Nearly thirty years ago, we built a log cabin in woods. It’s our summer escape. Instead of slogging in the Miami heat, we snuggle in puffer jackets, inhale the evergreens.
Jackson is everything Miami isn’t. In many ways, it’s still a small town. Years ago, a forest fire came within 300 yards of our home. One overcast afternoon, the sheriff knocked on our door.
“The wind’s picked up,” he said. “You have to evacuate. Now.”
For two weeks we lived in a hotel and watched that fire burn. It was the longest two weeks of our lives. Rusty the fire chief gave us his cell phone number. The sheriff would spot us at the diner, tip his hat, sit by our sides.
The people here are coping with the pandemic in their own unique way. For Easter, a local pastor conducted services in the Kmart parking lot. He climbed on a forklift, grabbed a megaphone and preached The Gospel to a hundred cars. Thrift stores and food banks are packed with goods going in and coming out. Sure there’s division. Republicans and Democrats. Mask wearers and mask deniers. But with so much space, it’s easier to breathe.
August passed. And when September rolled around, instead of heading back home to Florida, we stayed. One by one the tourists left. The leaves turned yellow. Elks bugled and the horned owls hooted. We woke up to windows tatted with frost.
In a way we were blessed. In the middle of a pandemic, Michael was able to go fishing and hiking. My daughter is forty and on the autism spectrum. Rachel had perfected social distancing long before social distancing was in vogue. She and her yellow Lab Molly were perfectly content traipsing the forest trails.
But the mountains no longer worked their magic for me. I knew I had much to be thankful for. So far my immediate family had emerged unscathed. But two dear cousins had died from the virus, and two close friends had lost their mothers. Of course there was Zoom. By now we had attended Zoom weddings. Zoom Bar Mitzvahs. And more Zoom funerals than I could count. But like a bad Internet connection, my Zoommates seemed out of sync. A hug or a kiss can’t be pixilated. A blue screen leaves you cold.
By the time the Jewish holidays approached, my sadness was palpable. I’d read and write. Cook and clean. Go about my business. And suddenly it would find me– a depression so real it was startling. Sure I tried to distract myself. Attack a jigsaw puzzle. Watch Star Trek reruns. Attempt a new recipe. Then when I’d least expect it, gloom would jump out of the shadows with its paws unsheathed.
Like the sci-fi shows I was drawn to on TV, I needed to be teleported to another dimension. I yearned to be lost in something bigger than myself. Then one morning, I was leafing through the local newspaper and saw an advertisement. The Jackson Hole Chavurah, a community group that meets in an Episcopalian Church, had published an invitation to its services. My eyes slowly scrolled the newsprint. Nothing was mentioned about membership fees. There was no obligation. Jews. Christians. The whole world was invited! Opening my computer, I clicked on the page. The website detailed a calendar of events and a virtual welcome mat.
When the evening of Rosh Hashanah came around, I put on my nicest outfit and plugged into the family room laptop. Meanwhile Michael and Rachel had made themselves scarce. Alone, I listened as the hazzan chanted the ancient tunes. Hundreds of people soon joined us.
I was fascinated by the participants. Some were in dress clothes, some in jeans, while others kept themselves hidden. The hazzan was a local folk singer. There was a teacher from The Teton Science School. A gray-haired female Rabbi from Montana. A college professor from Idaho. Young women with babies on their hips–the new generation– recited Hebrew effortlessly.
The next morning, I signed on again. This time I blocked my photo on the video, wore a comfy pair of sweats, and relaxed on the couch. Closing my eyes, I listened more carefully than I ever had before. The prayers floated over me, as calming as a lullaby, as soothing as a mother fingering your brow. May God bless you and keep you. May you and your loved ones be granted long and happy lives.
Three hours flew by in a blur. And as the participants said their goodbyes, the rabbi made an announcement. There was going to be a Tashlich ceremony performed at a park that afternoon. My ears perked up. I knew that park. That park was ten minutes from my house! I had no idea where my husband and daughter were. Napping? Reading? So I lifted my eyes unto the heavens and shouted with all my might. “It’s time to get dressed! We’re going out!”
We were among the first to arrive. The air was nippy. We laid our blankets on the grass and zipped up our fleece jackets. The aspen leaves had turned a golden yellow. A nearby creek was rippling. If you listened hard, you could hear trout splashing, the sound of water lapping against rock.
Slowly within the half hour, another fifty or so people joined us. I recognized some of them. The Teton Science School teacher. The folk singer. Families came with their children. Old men walked with their canes.
Speaking from beneath a small open shelter, the Science teacher welcomed us. Then the hazzan led us in prayer. Twenty minutes away, our local hospital was packed with Covid patients. But right here and right now, life was unfolding like a flower. I looked up and saw a bald eagle soaring. A young couple asked the congregants to bless their newborn child.
In a flash, memories of my past passed before me. My brother and sister. My friend Warren. My husband’s grandmother. My children when they were small. Is this faith, I wondered? I looked up again at the sky. Is this God? Then I glanced down once more at my family. Rachel was curled on the blanket, sleeping. Michael was taking pictures with his phone and texting his friends. Only the dog seemed lost in the moment, her tail wagging, her belly begging to be tickled, her eyes squinting in the sun.
Finally, the part of the service I had been waiting for arrived. The Tashlich ceremony is both symbolic and literal. First, we walked over to the creek. Then the hazzan led us in prayer.
“Oh God of Abraham, let us cast our sins into the water.”
As if on cue, everyone reached into their pockets and tossed whatever crumbs they had on hand. Bread crumbs. Cake crumbs. Cookie crumbs. In they went.
“For the sin of blind ambition,” intoned the hazzan. “For the sin of envy. For the sin of selfishness. For the sin of indifference. For sin of pride and arrogance. May we be forgiven.”
Suddenly I felt lighter. Buoyant. We watched and waited as hundred of bubbles came to the surface. Fish nibbled, and birds swooped. It wasn’t long before our offerings were eaten. Tikkun olam, the Mishnah tells us. To mend ourselves, we feed the world.
Eventually the waters quieted. Children got bored, and the congregants left for their cars. Still we stood and waited.
Job and Jonah. Deborah and Dinah. I don’t know whether our stories are myth or magic, legend or holy law. But a few weeks later the temperature dropped. That evening, we layered on the covers. In the morning, we woke up to a wonderland of white. At least someone had her prayers answered.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with her,” said Rachel.
My daughter’s dog was clearly the calmest member of our family. Whatever is the opposite of alpha, that’s what this dog is. But now Molly was running in circles, whining and chasing her tail.
Rachel looked exhausted. Rubbing her eyes, she yawned. “She’s already gone to the bathroom five times.”
I supposed it was my turn. I put down my cup of coffee. Then I slipped on my coat, my gloves, and my boots, and led the dog outside. She took two three tentative steps and shivered. Then she lifted her snout, pricked up her ears, and charged into the snow.
A moving melody. A brand new baby. A warm blanket on a cold night. Why go searching and searching for that one elusive thing? Maybe Molly had it right. Sometimes the answers are right in front of us. You just have to open the door.