Boyhood dreams blaze through an old man’s gaze.
A smile signalling what awaits.
With urgent tears and a frantic heart I stare over the mechitza at my brothers. He’s going to kill himself. My father is going to kill himself on Rosh HaShana. He has one collapsed lung. The other is laced with tumors. My father is going to blow the shofar and kill himself on Rosh HaShana.
The chazan begins the Amidah. My father beside him. I cannot pray. I cannot breathe.
I hear the soft words and I am jolted by the call.
Tekiya. A call to war.
Shevarim-Truah. A call for salvation.
Tekiya. A call for truth.
Tekiya. For grace.
Shevarim. For mercy.
Tekiya. A call for peace.
Pure power penetrating to my core, ringing in my ears.
It was not my father. It was the Eternal force awakening.
My father is laughing. Looking at the Aron HaKodesh, the Ner Tamid, he knows. He felt it too. Through his tears, my father is laughing.
Interrupted by silence,
The mighty throb of pain.
If it didn’t hurt,
You’d be whistling-
Notes piercing the air,
Slicing into my thoughts.
But all I hear
Your heavy step,
As you move to flip the eggs,
Browning in coconut oil,
Before the pan burns.
“It’s just frustrating, dad. We want to be here for you, but you need to tell us what to do. You need to tell us what you need.” Seth. Laying terms.
“We can’t always do that, because things change at the last minute.” Mom. Maneuvering.
“Yeah, we get it, but when there is a change in plans you have to let us know, like immediately, not after it’s not relevant.” Ben. Agitated. But he manages to soften. For him. Like him. “Dad, we want to be here for you. We love you.”
My father eyes us each in turn before his body is racked with sobs.
“I know you do. I just don’t know why.”
How can a man so deserving feel so unworthy?
It breaks me.
It dawns anew,
The nightmare, still true.
Her nose is red. She is going to cry.
“Jordana, do you have to do this now?!” Her face crumples. She moves to stand by my father.
“Yes. He keeps bringing it up, so I need to know. Dad, in what way do you think you hurt me?”
He can’t meet my eyes, doesn’t even try. Struggling to catch his breath as silent tumors burrow in his lungs, he rasps, “I didn’t give you the attention you deserved.”
He wilts. Hollow.
“But I’m OK now, dad. Really. I’m OK.”
A sharp, fractured inhale. “I hurt you.”
“I don’t hold it against you.”
“But you deserved better.”
He can’t continue.
My mom is rubbing his back in that circular way that sometimes eases the pain.
“What would you have done differently?”
“I was too harsh. I would have spoken to you more softly. I would have played with you. I treated you differently than your brothers. I pushed you away.”
“I don’t know.”
“How do you think that would have changed things?”
Droplets of anguish explode on the table as he bows lower in supplication of forgiveness already given.
“You wouldn’t have suffered as much as you did. There were so many years. I can’t take them back.”
It wasn’t his fault.
“Dad, what is the one memory you have of me, that if I lost everything else, you would want me to remember? One moment, so I could keep it to treasure.”
Spittle bursts from the suddenness of his smile, but his eyes reflect an inner sadness so deep I only think I understand.
“I know exactly. I don’t even have to think about it. It was your first Rosh HaShana. You were only a few weeks old. We were in Brooklyn at Papa Victor’s shul. And I was so proud, I wouldn’t put you down.” His tears forge a pause long enough for my mother to speak through her belated ones.
“You were in his arms the whole time. He wouldn’t even give you to me. He held you the whole time.”
“I was so proud, I didn’t put you down.” He exhales it so softly I almost don’t hear.
I watched Greatness fall.
He collapsed on my shoulder,
Like a brittle, ancient oak.
“Is it in my brain?” he asks one day, forehead soldered to mine as I embrace his skeletal frame. Always unsure of when his knees might buckle, I hold fast.
“Is what in your brain?” I wait. Holding him. Holding space.
There is more he wants to say.
“Is that why…” He leans forward. I shift my feet to bear more of his weight while he gestures with his hands. Grasping. Another vision. “Is that why it takes so long…”
I hold my tongue.
“To reach me.”
I let it reach him.
“Is that why I can’t speak?”
The waves are angry today.
That’s what I thought as I watched them fight,
Wrestling so violently-
Until they foamed white.
For as long as they could,
Until the sands and the winds ripped them apart.
Rushing at each other,
This time with greater force,
Begging desperate pleas,
“Please, don’t let go.”
“Hello, daughter.” He smiles. “What’s the plan?”
“I’m going to give you 20 of the morphine.”
“And then what?”
“And then one Lorazepam.”
“And then what?”
“And then we’ll get ready because Ben is coming.”
“And then what?”
“And then you’re going to take a shower. Ben is coming to help you take a shower.”
“But then what?”
“Whatever you want.”
His head is shaking ‘no’. Frustrated.
“But what for?”
I don’t understand.
He tries again. “And then what for?” Insistent. Distressed.
“So you can sleep, dad. We’re giving you the medicine so you don’t feel the pain. So you can sleep.”
“Ok,” he says.
A wave of relief.
The moon was smiling tonight.
In the darkness I hear his eyes open.
“Hello, daughter.” He squints. Makes his confounded Elvis face. “What time is it?”
“AM. It’s winter. It’s still dark in the morning.”
He considers this.
“Are you going to kill me?”
“No.” I hesitate. “Do you want me to?”
“Not yet. It’s not time yet.”
I smoothe the bristles of his cheek.
Again, to sleep.
Again, I weep.
Gentle waves approach,
Shimmering in the sunrise.
Lapping the sand before retreating,
Fearing the shore might arise from slumber.
Is it you? I wonder, love and sadness propelling my hope.
It is you, I decide, rational thought conquered.
Unable to process the void,
Unwilling to admit you’re gone,
I will imagine you everywhere from now on.
His head hangs, eyes rest.
I sit by his feet.
A moment of recognition. “Hello, daughter.”
“Do you know what this week’s parsha is?”
His finger lifts in answer, whisping at spirits dancing by his nose.
“It’s parashat Shemoth.”
I follow the movement of his head, unsure whether he nods with acknowledgement or shakes from morphine.
I begin to tell the story of Egypt and slavery. The birth of Moshe who will one day lead the Jews. His vision of God at the burning bush. God’s promise of redemption and reassurance that His nation will soon be free.
“We will be free.”
A plea or a prayer?
“Dad, when Moshe approached the burning bush, he took his shoes off. Why?”
“Because it was holy ground.”
“Why did he want to be barefoot on holy ground?”
“So he could feel Hashem’s presence.” His smile brightens as if basking in the light of God.
“When else do you take off your shoes, dad?”
“Because you want to feel Hashem’s presence?”
His lips mouthing soundlessly the words I will never hear.
He nods. “So I can be one with Hashem.”
He turns his face away. A darkness wedged between his brows.
“I hope I don’t forget that.” He concentrates. “I hope I can remember.”
I want more than anything for this to be the thing he will remember.
“It’s easy dad. It’s Kadosh. Like your heartbeat. Ka-dosh, Ka-dosh, Ka-dosh.”
His lips, a hint of the faintest smile.
My hand touches his chest in rhythm with the words. I need him to remember. I need him to remain Ka-dosh, Ka-dosh, Ka-dosh.
“Sweet man, gentle man,
Where does your road lead?”
“All roads lead to One,” he says.
And thus, he plants the seed.
My father, Avraham Baruch the kohen, died on Monday January 20th, the 24th of Tevet. My brother, Seth was holding his hand.
Glossary of Terms:
Mechitza (מחיצה) – Partition
In Orthodox communities, the congregation divides the sanctuary to allow for heartfelt prayer. Men and women are separated by the mechitza which can be made of cloth, wood, or any other opaque material that will obscure the faces of those on the other side. The height of the mechitza varies by community. In our synagogue, the mechitza is not quite five feet tall. When I wear high heels, I can easily see where my brothers sit. In some congregations, the mechitza takes another form. The women’s prayer section is on the balcony, while the men remain on the ground level of the sanctuary. In both cases, the mechitza serves to prevent distraction and allows for humble, modest, intentional prayer.
Rosh HaShana (ראש השנה) – The New Year
Rosh HaShana, literally ‘Head of the Year’, marks the beginning of the Days of Awe. It is a time of introspection and forgiveness as Jews take stock of their lives and their actions, hoping to change for the better and be inscribed in the Book of Life. Although Rosh HaShana is considered the New Year, it actually occurs during the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, the month of Tishrei (תשרי). On this holiday (spanning the course of two days), Jews ardently pray for a blessed new year, for health, happiness, success, and righteousness.
Shofar (שופר) – Ram’s Horn Trumpet
The shofar is a hollowed ram’s horn used to signal special religious occasions. Originally a call to battle, the shofar is now blown on specific holidays, a reminder of repentance and reflection. Traditionally, the shofar is blown 100 times on each day of Rosh HaShana. The sequence included here consists of 30. My father managed another 170 over the course of the two day holiday.
There are several prayer services conducted in different rooms at our synagogue. In awe upon learning his shofar call was the one they heard on the upper floors, a group of congregants from the other services joined our prayers on the second day, solely to hear my father blow his shofar. He was a trumpet player in his youth and has blown the shofar on High Holy Days for as long as I can remember. His powerful call moved congregations in Brooklyn, Westchester, and Israel. His mighty blow brought tears to our eyes, shattered our egos, and let the spirit of Hashem enter our hearts.
Chazan (חזן) – Cantor
The chazan leads the prayer services. On regular weekdays, the chazan is generally a member of the community who assumes the responsibility of leading the congregation in prayer. However during the High Holy Days, a professional chazan is hired. These men (in Orthodox communities the chazan is a man, while in Conservative or Reform congregations, women also serve in this role as a chazanit – חזנית) are musically trained and ordained as a cantor.
Amidah (עמידה) – The name of the central prayer in Jewish services
The Amidah is the core of Jewish prayer. It is comprised of eighteen blessings and is recited in all four of the prayer services. The congregation stands during the recitation, hence, the name Amidah which translates to ‘standing’. The Amidah is also called the Shemona Esrei (literally, eighteen) because of the number of blessings contained in the prayer. On Rosh HaShana a special rendition of the Amida is recited. This version includes additional verses unique to the holiday and the sounds of the shofar voices.
Tekiya (תקיעה) – The name of the first shofar voice
The tekiya is one long, continuous blast of the shofar. It is a powerful, joyful sound of strength. When my father blew the tekiya, it pierced my body through to my soul. The echoes resonated with such force that my ears would ring and my skin would tremble. It evoked a visceral connection to the past and to our people.
Shevarim (שברים) – The name of the second shofar voice
Literally meaning ‘broken’, the voice of the shevarim mimics a sad moan of three consecutive blasts. When my father blew this voice, he embodied the pain of the Nation of Israel. My father channeled the growing despair of the people through his manifestation of shevarim.
Truah (תרועה) – The third voice of the shofar
The truah is the crying voice. It is a broken blow of nine quick, successive sounds. Some people consider this voice to be the hardest to master. My father’s truah was always pure and true, but on this (his final) Rosh HaShana, my father faltered during the last repetition. The crying of his shofar was soulful and real.
Aron HaKodesh (ארון הקודש) – The Holy Ark
The Aron HaKodesh is the closet containing the holy Torah. Facing east, the direction of Jerusalem, the Aron HaKodesh is ornamented and adorned, a place of beauty from which the essence of Judaism emanates through the religious scrolls contained within. The congregation directs its prayers to the face of this significant structure.
Ner Tamid (נר תמיד) – Eternal Flame
The Ner Tamid is a lamp which hangs above the Aron HaKodesh. It symbolizes Hashem’s eternal presence and represents the light of the Menorah which burned in the Holy Temple at all times.
Shul – Synagogue, the Jewish place of prayer
Parasha (פרשה) – Portion
Every week, Jewish congregations read a parasha from the holy scrolls of the Torah. Each parasha constitutes one portion which is divided into chapters. The cycle of the Jewish calendar allows for a full completion of the Torah portions every year.
Shemoth (שמות) – The name of the parasha that week
Parashat Shemoth is the beginning of the Hebrews’ journey out of Egypt. The subsequent chapter (Va’era) continues the saga, and my father’s birth parasha (Bo), which we read two weeks later, completes the story. In that section, the last three of the ten plagues arrive in Egypt and Pharaoh finally allows for the Jewish Exodus from Egypt.
Birkat Kohanim (ברכת כהנים) – Priestly Blessing
At designated times during the prayer service, the kohanim stand in front of the Aron HaKodesh, cover their heads with a tallith (prayer shawl, טלית), raise their hands, and recite the following verses (Numbers, 6:24-26): “May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord shine his countenance upon you and be gracious. May the Lord turn his countenance toward you and grant you peace.”
“יברכך ה’ וישמרך. יאר ה’ פניו אליך ויחנך. ישא ה’ פניו אליך וישם לך שלום”
Kadosh (קדוש) – Literally, ‘Holy’
This Hebrew word has special meaning and is included in the blessings of the Amidah. For my father, to remain kadosh was of the utmost importance for it enabled him to serve the community with purity and sincerity. As a kohen, he yearned to be kadosh so he could act as a worthy vessel and properly represent the will of the congregation to Hashem.
Kohen (כהן) – Priest
In the Jewish religion, the priests are direct descendants of Aaron (Aharon, אהרון), brother of Moses (Moshe, משה). In Judaism, every Jew, regardless of status, is commanded to serve God (Hashem, השם). The priests, however, maintain a special caste separate from the nation. They serve God in the Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash, בית המקדש). Adorned in splendid garments and jewels, responsible for blessing the congregation and performing the Holy Sacrifices (Korbanoth, קרבנות), the priests are the conduits to the Divine. Aharon HaKohen was the first priest of the Jewish nation and he is revered for his ability to make peace between brothers, neighbors, and spouses. Authors Lehman and Prins explain in their commentary of Pirkei Avoth (the collection of wisdom from our sages, פרקי אבות), it is said: “[After he died] They wept for Aharon for thirty days, all the house of Israel” (Numbers, 20:29). The phrase, “All the house of Israel” suggests that the women also mourned because he was instrumental in helping maintain peace in the home (shalom bayit, שלום בית).
My father was of the priestly class. He too, endeavored to create peace in our home and our community by extending his welcome, listening without blame, and opening his heart with compassion. In the early 2000’s my father was part of a study conducted by esteemed geneticist Lee Ehrman. She was tracing the presence of the Kohanic gene. My father and brothers tested positive. They are authentic Kohanim (priests, כהנים).