What Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Mean to Me

Rosh Hashana means “new year.” Yom Kippur is a continuation. It is all sad and loving. And it is all about memory.

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By Miriam Edelstein, Communications Chair, Hadassah Lower New York State

Rosh Hashana means “new year.” We all know that. We celebrate it. We go to synagogue. Even the not-so-observant go to services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

Sometimes I wonder how sincere that attendance is. Are people going to show off their fancy clothes? Or to see what others are wearing? There is a lot of chatter and gossip.

My late husband, Gene, was always irritated about that. You see, he was practically a native of Rockland County New York. His family moved here when he was three. There were not a lot of Jews here at the time. Most of his friends were not Jewish. He often went with them to church on Sunday. The services were a lot shorter and everyone was quiet and respectful. He never got accustomed to the length of synagogue services or the disrespectful (in his eyes) chatter.

The whole community was more united. His father played bridge with the minister, Reverend Murchison, of the nearest church, now named the New Hempstead Presbyterian Church. In fact, during the Depression, when the church could not scrape together enough money to pay the utility bills, Gene’s father quietly paid them.

Gene went to a two-room schoolhouse. It is still there, on Old Schoolhouse Road. The parents supplied lunch, Campbell’s Tomato Soup,) which the kids ate with sandwiches brought from home. His nearest neighbor, on West Clarkstown Road, had to eat a sandwich made with home-baked bread and watercress which his mother picked in the field.

Life was a little different than it is today. If two cars passed on the road, it was cause for excitement. The house he grew up in was constructed from a Sears kit. Gene’s father paid 25 cents an hour to a carpenter to put it together and the carpenter was glad to have a job! His family had a big apple orchard. They sold the apples in New York. A big piece of that orchard is now part of the Palisades Parkway. Every weekend, relatives arrived from Brownsville, Brooklyn, to be in “the country.”

These are vignettes from Gene’s life. In 2014, his life ended in a hospice. His body just gave out. I think he was glad that his life was ending. The quality of life just wasn’t there anymore.

When Gene was alive, the holidays were difficult. As I mentioned earlier, attendance at his synagogue was minimal. I felt alone there. (Even when Gene went with me, it was clear he was suffering so I thanked him and suggested he stay home.) I was surrounded by joyful families, but I had no one. I made up for it by always inviting people to the house for breaking the fast at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. That was my “thing.” I would still like to do it, but the pandemic has gotten in the way.

During my childhood, it was wartime. Celebrations were minimal. After we arrived in the US, my recollections consist of my parents spending all day in the synagogue, especially my mother. I made brief appearances and my mother was grateful for that. So, holiday observance for me really began when I established my own home in 1954. My first husband, Richard, went to medical school in Washington, DC. We spent holidays with friends, expatriates of sorts. It wasn’t until we moved back to New York, when my children were born, that we started observing holidays seriously. Even then, Richard wasn’t so interested. I was the one who cared. Then came the divorce and things were in turmoil. It wasn’t until Gene came into my life that I settled down. For twenty years things were stable. Then all his diseases took their toll. By 2014 his life was ending…

At the hospice, and especially before, he never complained. No matter how weak, he got up every morning, shaved and showered and got dressed. Then he got as far as the living room couch. He was a really admirable human being.

He died a few minutes past midnight on Rosh Hashana. So every year, on Rosh Hashana I remember Gene. For me, the holiday is really a yahrzeit (death anniversary). It is sad, but loving. My present husband doesn’t mind. He admired Gene also and life goes on.

Yom Kippur is a continuation. It is all sad and loving. And it is all about memory.

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