A Shot of Whiskey
Everything about the day was drummed into my young head as extraordinary.
Food is part of the rhythm of each day; meals help form the social fabric of the family. On this day…one is not to eat.
Traditions extrapolated from Old Testament mandates are imbued with mortal seriousness on this day. The sensible notion of taking a day a week away from work extends even to the performance of what one would not consider labor, but is deemed so. Thus, merely flicking a light switch on or off is regarded as improper on the Sabbath, the day of rest. On this day though, in order to ensure no slip-ups, I recall light switches being taped into place, on or off as appropriate for that room. No absent-minded “work” on this holiest of high holy days.
More memories of youth; a rich and sodden meal consumed to prepare for 25 hours of fasting. There was thirst; no water either, the synagogue’s water fountain disabled. Smelling salts to revive exhausted worshipers; missed World Series games, this day tending to so often land during the Fall Classic.
Marble cake was wrapped in napkins and stashed in the backseat of the maroon Olds F-85, the family car driven to synagogue for evening services and parked on East 13th Street for the duration. The dry but sweet treat would be waiting for our hungry family after services ended the next evening as we would speed home to our apartment on Ocean Avenue and Avenue H, less than a mile from the synagogue, but too far to walk under voracious circumstances.
Synagogue: chest-beating confessional prayers, chanted multiple times through the interminable services. Such chest thumping is an ordinary one to two times a day affair for the religious Jew; on this day, one’s fist pounds one’s solar plexus hundreds of times throughout the day. How hard? Your choice; how guilty do you feel?
Yom Kippur is, of course, the day; a special day among Jewish holidays. Israel’s enemies hammered that home in a militarily clever way by attacking the Jewish state on this holy day in 1973. Were two Jews killed in Germany outside a synagogue today specifically because it was Yom Kippur? It’s hard to imagine otherwise; the violence could have been perpetrated any Saturday the synagogue hosted weekly Sabbath services. But, I speculate; an exercise in which there is little value.
What do non-Jews know of Yom Kippur? They may know of atonement. They may know of the Yom Kippur War. They may know of fasting. This piece describes this Jew’s personal reminiscence. Having lived through 61 of these holy days and been aware for well over 50 of them, my question is…what do I know of Yom Kippur?
I know some things, borne of earliest youth and seasoned over the decades. I know the grabbing solemnity of the opening prayer: Kol Nidre; a thrice-recited liturgy, an avowal belted out with gusto at the beginning of the prayer marathon. Kol Nidre is chanted in a harrowing, memorable, amelodic rhythm that has persisted over millennia. For many, the prayer defines Yom Kippur. It is a community-based nullification of vows and oaths; an oblique way to begin a prolonged session of repentance and hoped-for absolution.
I know how fasting was such a travail in youth and how the patience that comes with age seasons that angst and quashes the drama. Age knows…sundown will be here soon enough and then the lush spread of bagels, cream cheese, whitefish salad, sable, tomatoes, red onion, capers, smoked salmon…we called it lox in Brooklyn…will fill the table. Where is the marble cake?
The finality of sundown is a recurring theme in the day’s closing prayer, called Ne’ilah. Literally, “locking,” the closing prayer is meant to lock in one’s fate. If one has successfully repented, one is sealed in the Book of Life for another year. No drowning, or stoning (this is Biblical, after all), or death by wild beasts, or other, more modern death sentence this year…we beat the Angel of Death at his own game: off the hook until the next recitation of Kol Nidre.
And I know this! Imagine how much anxiety a “pray for your life” directive implants in a young boy’s thoughts, already filled with adolescent angst. It is consuming. It is, I posit, unhealthy. And it has staying power. That guilt, that need to fast and memorialize this day has stayed with me all my life. Only recently have I realized I could “celebrate” independently of a community service. My wife and now-grown children joined me in many career-based moves to numerous cities. Only one or two houses of worship have instilled a feeling of community, of brotherhood, of peace…rather than “PRAY FOR YOUR LIFE!”
Shed the guilt. Age brings perspective. I no longer need to instill any education about this day, about this religion, to my son and daughter. They will do what they will; they are of their own mind. (The history? That’s another thing. I will always remind, when I can. Today’s events in eastern Germany will be spoken of over bagels tonight.)
Sundown nears…40 minutes to go here in Cleveland as I gaze at Lake Erie…and I am reminded of how “sundown” dominates The Closing Prayer. Bear down and pray…pray for your life as the gates of heaven begin to close and the Book of Life receives in it the imprimatur of your fate for the coming lunar year. I have done the best that I can. One year, the 21st century version of stoning or wild beasts will come.
The pensiveness brought on by hunger and contemplating the Great Lake sparks a memory of another, more pleasant Yom Kippur story. One could posit the tale to portray the true comfort of religion. I must rush to finish the yarn before the sun sets. My wife and daughter will be insisting I join the “break fast” soon.
I recall well my parents, brothers, and I, returning from synagogue and appetized by day-old marble cake, entering our Brooklyn building and walking up to Apartment 2B. Mom would gather the pre-prepared and wonderful spread of food but first, in a continuum of having prayed for our lives, one more prayer.
We gathered in the kitchen. Dad would recite Havdalah, literally “the separation,” a ritual prayer meant to disconnect this deposed holy day from the normal day, what was now simply morphing into Tuesday or Sunday, the “days” in our religion beginning the night before. Havdalah was recited not with the usual glass of wine meant to accompany an incantation but, and only at the end of Yom Kippur, a shot of whiskey.
Dad would finish the prayer, drizzle a few drops of whiskey on the Formica table top, light it with the candles that had been part of this brief ceremony…the blue flames died from exhausted fuel in seconds…and, as if grabbing at magic, poke at the flame and place a few imagined drops in his pockets. Then, he’d down the shot and we would dig in: holiday over; time to eat.
Years later, (was Dad already dead?) I asked my oldest brother before he died what the whiskey and fire were all about. I was too young…or hungry…to ask at the time.
My brother explained that the flaming drops ceremoniously drizzled toward the pockets were meant to invite wealth in the coming year, a silly but harmless bit of whimsy and superstition.
“And why the shot?”
By this time, I was a veteran of college drinking. I had had my share of shots and anticipated that this would be a hard thing to experience on an empty stomach…25 hours empty. Even understanding the appeal of alcohol’s buzz, I flinched at the imagined nausea and dizziness.
My brother smiled. He knew the answer. I paraphrase the response he gave because I do not remember exactly, a measure of the reality that he is gone from my life and can no longer be quizzed on this point. The message was,
“It’s the best shot you’ll ever have.”
These are scattered memories of Yom Kippur past, written today, this Yom Kippur. The clear-thinking, hungry brain that penned this when I should have been at Ne’ilah wants me to not go back and edit it upon re-reading it. The writer in me knows that I must, that I will. I will use a light hand.
For now, the sun is nearly down and the time has come to set out food.
And, for the first time, I will attempt my Dad’s tradition. I am not skilled enough to burn the table…how my wife would disapprove…and the “filling the pockets” thing seems a bit beyond the pale. But I will drink the drink and perhaps in a way I only partially understand at this moment, connect with my father, and my brother, and my youth.
I’ll end here. Perhaps, perhaps not, I will return to this piece under the influence of “the best buzz of the year.”
Wednesday, October 9, 2019, 6:30 PM, EDT
Later That Night
I was right. I only partially understood. Reconnection with family and youth came not from the whiskey and its effects. It came simply in the telling of the story.
Dan Farkas is an itinerant New Yorker currently exiled in Cleveland. His creative outlets include writing & photography. His latest published pieces are “Summer’s End on Erie” in The Birdseed Magazine & “Ascension Song” & “The Wedding Toast” in The Prompt Magazine.
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