Yom Kippur vs. the Giants
Following her mother's death in 2011, Megan Vered penned a family story that she sent to her siblings every Friday. This essay is part of that collection.
Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the "First Person" column of the San Francisco Chronicle, The Diverse Arts Project, and Mezzo Cammin, and she is among the authors featured in the "Story Chairs" short story installation at Jack Straw Productions in Seattle.
For more information, see her Web site, meganvered.com.
We hover in the doorway, wait patiently for the congregation to stand. I shift my weight from one foot to the other; my shiny black Mary Janes slick against the floor. Mom grips my hand in hers. I recognize the signal: Don't make a scene. I still have smoke coming out of my ears because of the slip she forced me to wear. At least I talked her out of the idiotic undershirt. My mother is a well-wrapped package and wants us to follow in her footsteps. She hopes we will appear inconspicuous, but I know that all eyes are on us, given that there are seven in our party. My eyes open and close like butterfly kisses as they adjust to the darkened room. Comforted and at the same time repelled by the scent of dusty prayer books, stale perfume and musty mothballs, I search through the swaying sea of people for familiar faces. My mother is trying to look invisible and put together at the same time. My family—like peonies—blooms once a year on the High Holidays, fragrant and colorful.
It is October 1962, the morning of Yom Kippur and—because my father, the irreverent agnostic could not tear himself away from pregame coverage—we are forty-five minutes late for services. The San Francisco Giants are playing the New York Yankees in the final game of the World Series. Yom Kippur vs. the World Series. No contest. Today is Game Four.
We have missed the Ashrei, the Barchu, the Shema, pretty much all the prayers that precede the Rabbi's sermon. We have not, however escaped the annual recounting of sins, a ritual that so far, at age nine, offers me little meaning. I am aware that people are fasting and asking for forgiveness. I am not sure what the word sin even means. My stomach is already growling for lunch.
I know from experience that the only remaining seats are the gray metal folding chairs in the back. My rear end hurts just thinking about them. I wish we could sit in the padded pews. The greeter, tufts of hair frizzing out of his ears, hands us prayer books. The sight of our family is one that causes the men in the temple to shake their heads and the women to say tsk tsk under their breath. My father—an intellectual with the mouth of a sailor— never pays our temple dues on time, if at all. My mother—the full-time chaos monitor—does not serve on any temple committees. We never attend Friday night services. Mom leads the way—head held high—her gloved hand holding mine. This year her gloves are pale pink, to match her shoes, hat and purse. Excuse me, excuse me. Ouch! I bang my shin on one of the metal chairs. Squeezed between my mother and my sister Eve, I flip through the prayer book to find our place. It is practically time for the sermon so we have a lot of flipping to do. The metal chair presses into the flesh of my legs. The slip that my mother forced me to wear is tightening itself around my body like the jaws of a prehistoric reptile. It is so hot and stuffy that the supplemental songbooks have become fans, creating a fluttering murmur throughout the sanctuary.
My older brother nudges me in the ribs and whispers, Look! There's your boyfriend. He points to a creepy dark-haired boy seated across the aisle. I push my elbow into his side, causing my chair to squeak. The woman in the row behind us presses a crooked finger to her mouth and shushes us. Her bright red fingernails are the same color as her lipstick, which is smeared across her mouth making her face look like a child's coloring book. A large mole protrudes from the side of her face. My mother gives me the look. She removes her gloves one finger at a time and places them in her elegant lap on top of her purse. She opens her burgundy Union Prayer Book.
The Rabbi and Cantor stand at the bima in billowy white gowns. Behind them, the ner tamid flickers, doing its own private hora. The Rabbi pushes his glasses up on his nose and lowers his head in prayer. The room goes quiet. Stealthy like Nancy Drew, I lift my head and scan the room. My parents never pray and I want to see what it looks like.
When my older brother Reuel was in the second grade he came home from school one day and asked my mother what it meant to be Jewish. I try to imagine the words that gargled around in her throat. She is a careful and sure-footed word chooser—but also an atheist—so this question must have stumped her. The question about where babies come from was surely easier for her. Not long after, and much to my vexation, my parents enrolled all five of us in Sunday school at Temple Beth El in North Berkeley.
My parents, like many parents of their post-holocaust generation, have a conflicted relationship with Judaism and to an even greater extent, God. If God does exist in our home, it is in the form of Freud the Almighty. My father's operative phrase during times of emotional and spiritual upheaval is, Honey if I were you, I'd run not walk. Not to the nearest house of prayer, but to the nearest psychoanalyst. Lie on a couch for an hour of absolution. The closest my mother ever gets to prayer is when she says, Let's hold a good thought. My grandparents, the original Jews, rarely set foot in temple.
People seated in front of us close their prayer books, which I recognize as the cue that the sermon is beginning. That is when Daddy stands up. His dark curly hair is combed back in waves. The collar of his suit jacket presses against the back of his thick neck. Excuse me, excuse, me. He makes his way past the gray-haired congregants in our row. Past the greeter who mere minutes before welcomed him to the temple. It is not long before my brothers pick up the ball. Their dress clothes have barely had a chance to wrinkle. Excuse me, excuse, me. That leaves the four girls - Mom, my sisters, and me, surrounded by three empty chairs. My mother scratches her cheek, the most visible reaction she can allow herself in public. This time I grab her hand. I am doomed to sit in the sanctuary while my brothers are outside having all the fun.
My white lace socks form a ring of disgruntlement around my ankles. I check my fingernails to see if they are the same length, count the moles on my arms, draw imaginary pictures on my thigh. This is when I remember that the day before, a boy in my class got to go to the bathroom because of a coughing fit. I start out with a modest uha uha that escalates into spasms of agha agha agha. A muted giggle escapes from my younger sister's mouth. I give her my meanest how-dare-you look, because with that one little sound, she—the favored baby—has bested me. Defeated, I return to drawing pictures on my leg.
The sermon drones on and by the time it ends my stomach is beyond starved. The Rabbi's final Amen and the post-sermon rustling of the congregation bring me back to life; reassure me that we are nearing the home stretch. Then comes the Vidui prayer of confession. A long list of sins is recited in alphabetical order. People pound their chests with clenched fists. I have heard the words many times; the exact same list is repeated nine times every Yom Kippur. I still don't really understand what they mean. Followed by the familiar call and response that begins with, Al chet shechatanu lifanecha; for the sin that we have sinned before you. Mom is holding her book in her lap but her lips are not moving.
Mom, I whisper, Why aren't you saying sorry?
She raises her dark eyebrows.
Everybody else is pounding and chanting. Why aren't you? I think she should be sorry for making me wear this stupid slip. I dream of being Pippi Longstocking. No one ever forced unnecessary undergarments on her.
Shh… not now.
Aren't you sorry? For things?
Mom clucks at me like she does the dog when she is trying to get him to move, then turns the page of her prayer book. I hike up my dress and yank at the white flimsy fabric. In one deft move, Mom pulls my dress back down toward my knees, calling an end to my rant.
The Haftorah and blessings, followed by the closing of the ark. The chanting of HaYom T'amtzenu and we are free. My mother, even thought she is a doubter, will return for the afternoon memorial and closing services. She has already lost most of her family and finds comfort in remembering them.
The best news about being in the back of the synagogue is that we are the first ones out. I push my way through the crowd, past the heavy double doors decorated with metal words in Hebrew, to the rotunda where people are shaking hands and saying Gut yontif. I am not, however, able to escape the cheek-pinching fingers of Mrs. Rosenthal, one of my grandmother's mahjong partners. She leans in to me, the odor of unbrushed teeth hovering like sticky fog. Chag sameach, bubella, she says in her frothy voice, taking a chunk out of my cheek.
My eyes once again adjust, this time to the sun glaring down through the leafy trees that line the street. I find my father standing by the brick railing, schmoozing with fellow congregants as if he had been there all along. His blue striped bow tie is crisp against his starched white dress shirt. I wonder if any of them notice the small beige transistor radio in his breast pocket. My brothers are surrounded by a gang of boys all jumping up and down like pogo sticks in their dress clothes. One of them pounds another on the back and yells, Hiller hit the first National League grand slam in World Series history! If prayer had in fact occurred in my family that Yom Kippur morning, it was in the form of sports fever.
Eve sidles up to me and then Mom is between us, hands resting at the nape of our necks. The president of the Sisterhood, wearing a form-fitting bright turquoise dress, greets my mother with a brief hug.
Mildred! Your children are always so fastidiously dressed and beautiful.
My mother smiles and says thank you. I remember now that this is the lady who thought my mom worked for a fashion magazine.
How do you do it? All five of them! Honestly!
I want to yank my slip off and strangle her with it, but know this is my mother's moment and it is my job, in the words of my mother, "to rise to the occasion."
Mom fondles my ponytail. I don't do much, really. They take care of themselves.
Not to mention you, Mildred. Where did you get that gorgeous dress?
Before the lady in turquoise can lob another compliment, her husband takes her by the arm and chaperones her into the ever-rotating whirlpool of temple goers. Now that the mini-pageant has reached a conclusion, I wriggle out of my mother's grasp.
As we head back up the hill, my father rolls down his window and yells at the top of his lungs, so that the pelicans on the bay can hear, We beat the bastards! I learn that the final score was 7-3. My brothers go on and on about Whitey Ford's pitching style, Marichal's leg kick and Hiller's grand slam. Beating the Yankees is sheer vindication for my father, a Bostonian.
Years later, my brother Oran would describe this as a truly spiritual experience on the holiest of days.