True Californians will call me a wuss, but I was frickin scared by the earthquake that rumbled Southern California Friday night. The quake was supposedly only a 4.6 magnitude, which Golden State natives consider a love tap from Mother Nature, but my house shook with such a vengeance that my shower glass partition swayed. Ben Jr., my golden retriever who’s been giving me the cold rump these past few weeks, was so frightened he nestled in my lap.
Friday night marked the beginning of the Jewish New Year 5781, a “High Holiday” known as Rosh Hashanah. My former Hebrew school teachers are rolling in their graves hearing this, but I’ve always hated Rosh Hashanah and the companion Yom Kippur holiday ten days later. It’s a period of great stress, as it’s when Jews make their case to God why they shouldn’t be recalled in the coming year. God issues a verdict on Yom Kippur.
My biggest fear in life is to die on Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur services are to Judaism what the Super Bowl is to football, which is why they sell tickets to attend them. Even religiously non-observant Jews show up because centuries of tradition have inculcated them not to test fate. Sandy Koufax, the famed Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher, wouldn’t take chances even when the 1965 Word Series was at stake.
Growing up in Toronto my family belonged to an Orthodox synagogue called Shaarei Tefillah, whose High Holiday services when I attended was a 10 on the misery index. The always overheated sanctuary was jam packed with people practicing social closeness, and the rock-hard wood benches were spaced so tightly that it was difficult to stand without undue pressure on your knees and joints.
I’m certain that longtime Shaarei Tefillah members had knee replacements in their 30s, because a big part of the Rosh Hashanah service experience is constantly standing and sitting while the arc holding the holy Torah scrolls is repeatedly opened and closed. Unlike the consideration I give Ben Jr. for standing and sitting, the Rabbi didn’t reward congregants with treats.
The High Holidays are a time for soul searching and reflection, but for me it was always a time to fantasize about being born Irish. I know that Irish people have their share of angst, but the ones I knew growing up in Canada always seemed to know how to have a good time. When New Years on the Christian calendar rolled in, they didn’t go to services and see how miserable they could make themselves. The went and got shit-faced drinking bottomless pitchers of Molsons.
Getting blitzed and hearing great yarns from the world’s greatest storytellers struck me as so much more delightful than sweltering away in hours-long services, listening to a Rabbi chastise everyone for being lousy Jews because they only showed up for services on the High Holidays. It somehow never occurred to him that if he made the services more enjoyable, people might be inclined to come more often.
Over the years my Irish-born fantasy became very involved, to the point where I christened myself Liam O’Shaughnessy. I was born and raised in Galway. My red-haired girlfriend, Caitlin O’Connor, was born in Limerick. We met at a Michael Flatley performance. Caitlin and I got along swimmingly except when she pressured me to join her at AA meetings.
Rosh Hashanah is a downer holiday. Instead of encouraging Jews to think positive, the services are designed to scare the heebie jeebies out of you. (now you know why it’s called the heebie jeebies.) Although I’m no expert on world religions, I’m confident in saying there is no liturgical prayer that can rival Unsaneh Tokef for triggering depression and angst.
Here’s a portion of the prayer that’s somberly recited on both days of Rosh Hashanah:
On Rosh Hashanah we’ll be inscribed and on Yom Kippur we’ll be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the evil Decree!
So much for trying to live in the moment!
Now back to Friday night’s earthquake. I know I shouldn’t admit this, but the silver lining with the pandemic and social distancing is that I had a guilt-free excuse not to attend services this year. Los Angeles’s mayor has warned against group gatherings, and I recall learning in Hebrew school that Jews are obligated to respect the laws of the land they live in. If Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti says “jump,” I must respond, “How high?”
But I also learned in Hebrew school that natural disasters also are warnings from God. That earthquake was the Almighty’s way of saying, “Liam, you think I’m going to let you off easy skipping Rosh Hashanah services this year?” To drive the point home, God offered up some other proven favorites to remind me who’s boss — wildfires, smoke, excessive heat, earthquakes, and, of course, the pandemic.
I knew God wasn’t fooling around when the L.A. zoo was forced to close last week because of extremely bad air quality. (Where’s Noah when you need him?)
Instead of pondering end-of-life possibilities reciting Usaneh Tokef, I’m experiencing them.
Hey Lord, I got the message!
L’Shana Tova, Happy New Year from Biblical-plagued California.