Near the beginning of his 1984 biography of Menachem Begin, Begin: The Haunted Prophet, Eric Silver, former Jerusalem correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer, relates a story about the future Israeli prime minister’s early years growing up in Brest-Litovsk, Belarus (a.k.a. Brisk).
Ze’ev Dov Begin, Menachem’s father, “remained an observant, but not a fanatical, Jew,” Silver explains, and as proof he offers an anecdote straight out of the High Holidays:
“Contrary to strict Orthodox practice,” Silver writes, Ze’ev Dov “told his children to brush their teeth on the fast of Yom Kippur, but not to swallow the water. ‘Today,’ he would explain, ‘you are going to talk to God, so your mouth must be clean.’”
I wish I could tell you more about what I learned from the book, my designated High Holidays synagogue reading (non-machzor division), but to be honest, that’s about as far as I got before I happened to glance out the sanctuary door to see my daughter racing past, on her way to who knows where, and stepped out to usher her back into the playroom.
That scene seemed to play out over and over again during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Just as I would settle into my seat for the long haul, some child-related predicament would interrupt. By no means was my daughter the only culprit: her younger brother punctuated the cantor’s Unetaneh Tokef prayer on the first day of Rosh Hashanah with the repeated destruction of his Lego creations. (He reprised the performance during shofar blowing the next day.)
Parents say you only notice the disturbances your own kids make – they’re somehow more obnoxious than the outbursts of other children – but in this case, at a moment when you could literally hear the flutter of a hair doily, the cacophony felt impossible to miss.
Life doesn’t exactly stop for the High Holidays, try as we might. That’s especially true when it comes to young people giddy with getting to skip so much school (just after the start of a new academic year, naturally) and hopped up on candy (and we haven’t even gotten to Simchat Torah yet).
Synagogues try their best to keep kids engrossed and out of the sanctuary – and I can say that the couple in charge of family services at the place where I davened this year did an admirable job – but it’s often an uphill battle. The most engrossed I have ever seen my kids on the High Holidays was the time my parents’ synagogue invited a couple of characters from Paw Patrol to visit. It had zip to do with yontif (and I hadn’t realized that Marshall, the fire pup, was such an avid smoker), but at least the kids were happy – and quiet.
Of course, it’s not just young kids who don’t stop for the holidays. It sure would be nice if the world would take a breather on those few days a year when Jews are otherwise engaged. Alas, unless you’re living in Israel, things don’t work that way.
Maybe I think this every autumn, but it feels like this year the High Holiday schedule has been particularly egregious, especially here in Canada amid an election campaign. The CJN’s robust coverage of the campaign is a tribute to its dedicated team, who have been working against the clock to keep you informed about Jewish issues. This week we conclude our election coverage with a look at Jewish ridings across the country and how the vote (and early voting) might play out. It’s a busy time of year, but hopefully you’ll find a few quiet moments to have a read.