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Lipovenko: The machzor and me

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A bookcase reveals much about a home’s occupants. On the shelves in my office, titles on pop culture and investing share space with Humashim and Jewish history. The specialty prayer books for the High Holidays are kept on a top shelf; their neighbour directly below is a boxed set of audio recordings of the U.S. Supreme Court in session.

Soon, another court will convene, with a single judge to listen, weigh the merits and decide each case. No two petitioners are alike, but each will argue from the same legal brief: the machzor.

Walk into any place of Jewish worship this time of year and you’ll find machzorim as plentiful as slices of honey cake, stacked on tables or arranged single file. But I’ve relied on my own copy since buying my first seat for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at Montreal’s Young Israel synagogue in 1964.

READ: LIPOVENKO: A STORY OF “COMING UP” IN 1960S MONTREAL

At the time, the popular Orthodox shul ran parallel davening in its social hall to accommodate an overflow crowd. The space didn’t have the gorgeous stained glass windows of the main sanctuary, but was always packed, the folding chairs were comfortable and the cost didn’t break the piggy bank.

With this much historical mileage, my machzor qualifies as a relic, having the added distinction as the only tangible item from my childhood that’s still in use.

How special is that? Think about it: what has survived from our 11-year-old selves and, more importantly, functions half a century later with the same purpose it once did?

Dusting off my machzor, I’m instantly reminded by the girlish handwriting of my name inside the cover, how long we’ve been making this annual trip together. Another clue: we seem to be aging in tandem, with wear, tear and repair in the same places (masking tape for the machzor’s fraying spine, ibuprofen for my pesky back), but are otherwise in remarkably good condition. In solidarity with my fading hair colour, the pink edging on all 378 pages of text has dulled, too.

Actually, this machzor is for Rosh Hashanah only and, unlike its companion for Yom Kippur, is the one I bonded with. It was no contest: the former is an optimistic blueprint for the new year; the latter, a rap sheet of bad behaviour confessed throughout the Day of Atonement.

Besides, having my own Rosh Hashanah machzor meant that I knew it was time to stop shmay-draying in the shul halls and join the adults.

To go back so far together means a lot, as other objects become disposable or rendered useless. Also, it’s reassuring to be reunited, year after year, with something that shares my past, while acting as a conduit to the future. The machzor feels good in my hands – compact and lightweight, its size is just right for holding, especially during long stretches on one’s feet.

From its shape and plain black cover, my edition doesn’t resemble the typical shul machzor, but the liturgy speaks the universal language of penitence and forgiveness, redemption and hope. Each has taken a turn playing a greater or lesser role in my davening.

My machzor has been the wishful voice of adolescence (good grades in school), the heartfelt plea of a young woman (another chance with an ex-boyfriend) and a grateful soul (living another year in good health). In the wake of 9/11, I took comfort in having something so familiar when my husband was stranded in London over the holiday.

But I admit there were Rosh Hashanahs when the machzor just sat on my knees like a latke, pages unturned or open to a timezone the cantor and congregation had left an hour earlier. Just keeping the machzor close was the best I could manage then, overwhelmed as I was by exhaustion, anger or, worse, a feeling of utter helplessness.

And there was the Rosh Hashanah when my husband (the ex-boyfriend) and I tried a new shul, requiring a hike of well over two hours. Barely past the opening brachot, I wondered: was the assertive air conditioning auditioning for a lead role on Broadway? To freeze or not to freeze? The dilemma solved when I walked out the front door and found myself heading in the direction of Montreal’s Mount Royal Park, to daven alone. (I must have been channelling The Quarrel, the 1991 movie filmed in that park, where two estranged Jewish friends meet on Rosh Hashanah.)

Since it was still early on a weekday morning, the park was quiet and the spot I chose on a slight incline was deserted. It was the perfect spot for an open-air service. A bright September sun warmed me, sending my spirits soaring, along with the birds in flight.

Opening my machzor and turning my gaze heavenward, I thought of the title on the boxed set of U.S. Supreme Court recordings in my office: “May It Please the Court.”

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