July 18, 2013 by Katia
‘Mama, what was the name of that guy in Ancient Ebgypt (sic)?’
‘No. What did we build for him again?’
‘Oh, pyramids for the pharaoh.’
‘What’s a Spynx (sic)? And what about the Greeks?’
This exchange goes on and on and almost inevitably gets derailed into North American history territory when he tries to put these pieces together, and I , his Israel-born mommy, feel overwhelmed by the weight of not one but at least two historical legacies that my husband and I are responsible for relaying and merging into a coherent homogenous one, thus rescuing my favourite four-year-old’s confused brain from this fragmented historical chaos.
In my previous incarnation, years and continents away, it was me who used to call someone else ‘mama’. I also had a Babooshka, my mom’s mom and a Ninulya, my grandma’s sister Nina, whom I affectionately called that. I was an only child and the apple of their eye. Things were a lot clearer for me than they are for Four Year Old. Yes, my family had a past in a different country, but historically and religiously we shared our present with the rest of the population. Despite not being the typical married plus two family unit, we shared, as any other family would, our own inside jokes, rituals and routines, and through them we’ve created memorable family moments and traditions that I remember longingly.
Some of our rituals were daily, some only happened once a year. No matter what on January 13th we would welcome guests to my mom’s apartment, where we would gather to remember my great grandfather. On August 12th you would find us on a Jerusalem-bound bus, headed to a commemorative monument to other victims of Stalin’s regime in a little park, a part of which was converted to a playground, where we would participate in a surrealistic scene, listening to an official speak about the horrors of that regime amidst swings and slides and dog poop. No matter what sometime in mid May we would gather around the TV, make our manual low tech pre-Excel charts and individually decide how to allocate our points from 1-12 to the performing countries competing in the Eurovision song contest. No matter what once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement usually in September or October, we would fast and then head to the synagogue together to listen to the Shofar.
Yom Kippur and the entire period leading up to it is a time for introspection and moral self-assessment. You reflect on ‘sins between man and friend’ as we call them and on ‘sins between man and God’ and ask for forgiveness. Come Yom Kippur we fast from sunset to sunset the next day while our actions are being assessed and judged. The blowing of the Shofar symbolizes that the verdict was given and we wish each other Gmar Hatima Tova, a good final sealing. And there you have it, my own Judaism for Dummies version. This is also the facet of Yom Kippur that my sons will probably become familiar with. But there’s an insider’s scoop known only to those who’ve experienced Yom Kippur in Israel. Come the Day of Atonement the city noises slowly die down and are replaced by the voices of children. Public transport, restaurants, stores and businesses shut down eventually being joined by private transport. And that is when the children take over the streets and the city becomes their kingdom. They ride their roller blades and bikes on the street through deserted roads and highways or simply walk in loud teenage packs from one part of the city to another, while the grownups are fasting or not, depending on how religiously devout they are. On the next day when the sun sets everyone heads to the synagogue through the still car-deserted streets. My sons won’t get to know any of that.
My trip to the synagogue with the three women will most likely be filed in an archive under the folder “mom – Israel nostalgia” and even if they do decide to observe the holiday they will never get to join us for that walk that whether you were religiously inclined or not felt festive and otherworldly. To get to the synagogue we would head down the street to a little tree shade covered dirt path leading to its backyard and then along with other women of different ages we would assume our spots by the large windows opening to the outside and wait until one of the praying men would open them. When the windows opened we heard this, a part of the prayer they’d be singing and I would start asking. Requesting. Praying silently in my head until I heard the Shofar.
Walking with us that day, every year, making their way to the synagogue were tens maybe hundreds of other people – hence the lack of room inside. Neighbours normally wearing sandals and shorts were wearing blindingly white button down dress shirts and a yarmulke whether in everyday life they were religious or not. You would inevitably run into people you’ve shared some childhood memories with, old and new neighbours, people you disliked and couldn’t remember why, people who worked in local businesses and you weren’t used to seeing not in their uniform, people you had never met before but everyone knew why everyone else was there and everyone was an extra in someone else’s family ritual, in the creation of someone else’s perception of the holiday.
I often pray in my own home but can’t in clear conscience say that I learned something at synagogue that I didn’t know before. It would be hypocritical, having gone there once a year and contrived, but it did contribute to my sense of identity as a member of my family and as a member of my people.
It seems that a major part of what makes a ritual a ritual is meaning, repetitiveness, continuity and eventually a tradition is created. So what happens when you move continents? I know, I know. Families are all about creating new traditions together and I know we will, but the continuity component will be missing. How do you initiate your child into your past when you have to spend 24 hours traveling to walk with him down that dirt path?
This post was written for Finish The Sentence Friday on the topic “At Church (place of worship) I’ve learned”. Please visit these great ladies at:
Janine at Janine’s Confessions of a Mommyaholic
Stephanie at Mommy, for Real
Dawn at Dawn’s Disaster