We were at Yom Kippur services, seated among 500 congregants, some dressed all in white, chanting responsively with the Rabbi: sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in English. There were a remarkable number of serene or smiling faces, particularly, it seemed, among the elderly. And there must have been over 200 people 70 years or older. The mood was so different, so much friendlier than the synagogue we had attended for over 40 years.
That former synagogue brought out all of my resistance, born of a lifetime’s attachment to secular humanism, to organized religion. I had attended in order to be kind to the wife I love, but I had always been a stranger there. I’m sure that every movement of my body, every crease in my face, signaled to others that I wasn’t at home, and as far as I could tell, that’s how they treated me. Their greetings, like mine, were more grimaces than smiles, more perfunctory than genuine. I felt like a stranger in a hostile territory, barely pretending to join in.
Without wanting to, I limited Franny’s ability to relax as deeply as she had wanted into the service and a community of Jewish families she wanted for her own. Year after year, I felt irritated with my own fate, and angry at the way that I had diminished Franny’s experience, which was deep, satisfying, and uninhibited when I was absent. I was ashamed of myself.
Though the liturgy in our new synagogue was essentially the same, it seemed joyful to me and that relaxed my muscles, mental and physical. The chanting washed over me and I joined in. My body, often edgy during services, quieted. I stopped thinking and simply read the words of the prayers, lending my voice, however tentatively, to the haunting Yom Kippur melodies. Instead of closing, praying—not the words but the sounds—opened my heart.
We were sitting in the middle of a long row. There had been a choral group singing on the bima, which is the stage where the Rabbi, the Cantor and, most importantly the Torahs reside. I had been enchanted with their song and, just as much by the age range of singers. Of the 12, the youngest might have been 25 and the oldest 90. When they were done, they came down from the bima and headed back to their individual seats. As is the custom when one has read from the Torah or given a talk, congregants shook their hands, eyes gleaming, and saying with gusto: “yashar ko’ach!” (something like, “more power to you!”)
One man in particular caught my eye. He was probably the oldest, about 90 or so, and walked slowly with the help of a cane. As he shook people’s hands, he smiled, slowly, gently. And I thought: He’s so dignified.
For reasons I don’t entirely understand, his dignity stunned me. Much like the blast from the Rosh Hashanah shofar, the ram’s horn, that each year reminds us of the anguish, the yearnings, and the failures of the year, just past, and more importantly, awakens us to the possibilities of the new year. I needed to understand what that old man’s dignity signaled to me.
Up to that moment, I don’t think I’d given up my desire to be the energizing core of whatever group I inhabited. I would say to myself and sometimes to others that I had let go of my ambitions, my drive to succeed, to accomplish great things, or to be the center of attention. I’ve done so because it’s clear that my time is past and it’s time for younger generations to claim that center stage.
And yet, in my mind, and in some of my activity, I don’t think I’ve permitted myself the full understanding and acceptance of this great developmental sweep. I’ve not truly stepped back.
The old man at the synagogue had stepped back. He seemed so profoundly at home in that gentle smile. He seemed to enjoy what he could do and to appreciate the pleasure it afforded others. His smile said to me, and to the other congregants: I’m pleased to still be here in this place, with these people…to participate, to be alive.
Observing him, I think I felt what he felt. I understood, if only for a moment, that there is a next stage of life, outside the magic circle of youth and manhood-in-full-swing. It is quieter, more accepting, filled with appreciation of others, and gratitude for what I have.