Yom Kippur Beach Walk

This post was originally scheduled for 14 September 2013, as part of the long-discontinued Sweet Saturday Samples bloghop. I wanted to finally move all these old posts out of my drafts folder already!

Like last week’s post, this also obviously comes from an older version of the book formerly known as The Very First. It’s since undergone several more rounds of edits.

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Important Note: Out of reverence for Yom Kippur, this post, like all my other Saturday postings, has been prescheduled.

This scene takes place a bit after the Yom Kippur piece I shared last year. Young Cinni and Sparky are taking a walk on the beach in the late afternoon, and have gotten to talking about Cinni’s feud with her older sister Stacy (Eustacia). Sparky is trying to explain what repentance and forgiveness mean, though Cinni and Stacy will continue not speaking to one another until June 1985, when their near-lifelong silence ends by accident.

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“Real repentance happens between two people.  God doesn’t perform forgiveness on your behalf if you haven’t talked to the other person and apologized.  And you’re not supposed to think about how things might be different or better in another life.  Our focus is on the here and now, on this life.  But the gates of repentance are always open.”

“So you can ask God, or other people, for forgiveness at other times of the year?”

“Of course.  And even though tonight is gonna be the main closing of the gates, they’re still gonna be officially open till Hoshanah Rabah, one of the holidays at the end of Sukkot.  It’s like one last chance to get in any final, missed prayers or apologies.”

“Wow, you people have a lot of holidays I never knew about.  I don’t think even Laura celebrates so damn many.  She says the Catholic Church stopped celebrating all their fast and feast days a long time ago.  At least, normal people stopped celebrating them.  I’m sure religious fanatics still do it.”

Sparky cast her eyes up toward the sky, which was still rather blue and not yet turning into a watercolor of the setting Sun. “I can almost see the gates of heaven up there, even though I know God doesn’t really live up in the sky or even in this world.  It’s hard to describe unless you’ve been there and heard it, but when the shofar is blown at the end of Rosh Hashanah services, the final, very long note, I can feel time and the world standing still, and the gates of heaven opening.  And when the long note is blown again at the end of Yom Kippur, it’s like I can feel the gates shutting for another year.  But God hears prayers at all times, even if this time of year is the most ideal time to ask for important stuff.”

“Next year at this time, I bet you’ll be a proper American girl and not so focused on old world stuff.  I mean, you can still be religious, but I hope it won’t be the main thing about you.  Laura lives in the real world while still doing her Catholic thing.”

Sparky looked down at her skirt, which covered her knees, and her sleeves, which covered her elbows. “I guess I still don’t look exactly American.  Even if I’m not Orthodox, I still was taught I have to dress modestly.  But when I’m at school or with you and your friends, I do feel kinda outta place.  The only other girl we know who dresses like me is Nancy, but you said she ain’t really your official friend.”

“You’ve got a leg up on Nan, ‘cause at least you show way more skin and don’t think it’s a sin to even look at a boy.  But your hair’s slowly starting to grow outta that awful haircut your mom forced on you, and the poodle curls are gone.  I think you’re more scared than you oughta be of showing off extra bare skin.  Once you start wearing more normal clothes, it’ll become like second nature, and you won’t be able to believe you useta shun them.”

“Can we talk more about this tomorrow?  Even if I’m not old enough to fast or do other grownup stuff, I don’t feel right talking about stuff like clothes and hair on Yom Kippur.”

Cinni dug her sandaled foot into a patch of wet sand. “If you insist.  I ain’t some twit like Al, who only likes to talk about stuff like that, even if I ain’t the opposite extreme like Nan or Adeline.  Speaking of, I’ve long been itching to get my hands on botha them to try to make ‘em over.  Perhaps they’ll be inspired once they see how I’ve successfully made you over.  Even unpopular girls can’t be that immune to wanting to look normal as they get older.  If they want boys to notice ‘em when we’re old enough, they’ve gotta start dressing the part and talking about normal stuff.”

Sparky looked up at the seagulls flying overhead as she and Cinni continued on down the beach.  If only she could be as carefree as the seagulls, and not worrying about heavy things like repentance and how to become a real American girl before she was even bat mitzvah.

WeWriWa—A new kind of atonement

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes from my WIP, The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, and is the conclusion of the first section of Chapter 29, “A New Kind of Atonement.”

It’s September 1945, and my characters have recently moved to Budapest from Abony so they can be in a much larger Jewish community. They’re attending services at the Great Synagogue of Budapest on Dohány Utca (Street), in the uniquely Hungarian Neolog denomination. It’s sort of like liberal Modern Orthodoxy or very, very old-school Conservative Judaism.

Parts of the synagogue are in ruins (along with 80% of the entire city), and about 2,000 people who died in the Budapest Ghetto are buried in the courtyard. There’s also the chilling knowledge that during the occupation, Eichmann had his office in the women’s gallery. Needless to say, the autumn holidays haven’t been very happy so far.

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Dohány Utca Synagogue, Copyright Gabor Dvornik

The sounds of Kol Nidre commingled and competed with the sobs and shrieks they’d come to expect here.  Beyond remembering all the people who’d been with them last year at this time, surely many people were thinking of the promises, vows, and oaths they’d made in the best of faith but been unable to keep because of the forces of evil.

Eszter thought back to one of the film festivals she’d gone to with Mirjam, before the war, when foreign films were still allowed.  The climactic Yom Kippur scene from The Jazz Singer came into her head, as Al Jolson’s character chose his faith over his career, at least for that one night.  He sang with a tear in his voice, his soul and identity laid bare, in spite of his attempts to hide behind blackface and a de-Judaized name.

Perhaps Kálmán was right, and they’d be better-off in their own homeland, without having to resort to similar hiding measures and make the Gentiles think they were better, different, more modern than those people who lived in self-imposed ghettos.  The cataclysm they’d just lived through had struck everyone, the insular as well as assimilated.  Now it was up to them to rebuild the remnants and replant the uprooted trees.

Next autumn, I’ll be doing a series on The Jazz Singer at 90, exploring a lot of different topics related to the film, the transition from silent to sound film, and so much more. I’m really looking forward to researching and writing this series.

Halloween-themed posts begin next week!

The Beauty of Autumn

In memory of all those who perished 74 years ago today on Krystallnacht. When I reclaimed my soul’s birthright at age 18, I made sure to schedule my mikvah date for 9 November 1998, the 60th anniversary of Krystallnacht.

Today begins the Autumn’s Harvest Blog Hop, whose full rules and participants list you can view by clicking the above image. There are over 200 chances to win all sorts of prizes. Just comment on each participating blog with your e-mail for a chance to win:

1st Grand Prize: A Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet

2nd Grand Prize: A $50 Amazon or B&N Gift Card

3rd Grand Prize: A Swag Pack that contains 10+ paperbacks, ebooks, 50+ bookmarks, cover flats, magnets, pens, coffee cozies, and more!

I’ve been embroidering and cross-stitching for probably close to 25 years now, so I’d like to offer a customized embroidered boomark as my prize. My winner can choose what design and colors s/he wants (doesn’t have to be fall-related).

My favorite part of Autumn is all the back-to-back holidays. I go to a student center (which I attended as a community member long before belatedly returning to school), and here are some of the reasons I love their Rosh Hashanah services:

I’m not charged any money and I’m generally guaranteed a good seat on the women’s side. I don’t feel squashed in a gigantic fishbowl, among hordes of people who only come for the High Holy Days. And no one shakes us down for money in some High Holy Days appeal speech or pushes donation forms on us.

Eating exotic fruits like starfruit, dragon fruit, durian fruit, lychee, and pomegranate. It’s a tradition on the second night to eat a fruit you haven’t eaten in the past year, so you can still say the Shechehiyanu blessing, thanking Hashem for granting you life and sustaining you till this day.

The Haftarah reading (selection from the Prophets) of the first day. It’s one of my favorite Bible stories, Chana (Hannah) praying from her soul for a child, and being rewarded with the Prophet Samuel. I got the first part of my Hebrew name from this story. I didn’t choose Chana as my leading name solely because it happens to be my legal name in Hebrew. And of course, someday I’m going to name my firstborn son Samuel after my namesake’s son.

Hearing the shofar being blown. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been so spiritually-attuned, but every year when I hear that haunting, mournful sound, it’s like I can feel the heavens literally opening up and judgment opening up.

U’Netanah Tokef, a haunting, pivotal prayer which is also part of the Yom Kippur liturgy. You’ve probably heard of the middle paragraph, “Who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water….”

Going to a neighbor’s awesome backyard fish pond for tashlich, the symbolic casting-off of sins by throwing breadcrumbs (or in our case, fish food) into a natural body of water. He’s got koi and a couple of other types of fish in his pond, which is a labor of love.

Thrice a year, on the two days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Aleynu prayer falls in the middle of the Amidah (long standing middle prayer of the service) instead of at the end. During these three days, it’s a custom to bow all the way to the ground instead of just bending at the knees and waist and lowering the head. (The Muslims got the custom from us.) I seem to be the only one in the women’s section who does it, but I love Hashem so much, and the chance to be that close to him/her.

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Because I’m so spiritual, my favorite holiday is Yom Kippur. I just love the spiritual euphoria that comes with fasting, feeling so empty and pure, knowing you have enough self-discipline to not eat or drink anything for over 24 hours, not needing or wanting food or drink, just praying and thinking spiritual, important thoughts all day long. I also love Kol Nidre, the haunting prayer sung at night. And when the shofar is blown at the end of the Ne’ilah (closing) service, I feel the heavens closing up.

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Only days after Yom Kippur, Sukkot begins. It’s an 8-day festival (7 days in Eretz Yisrael) where you’re supposed to live in a booth, a temporary dwelling with schach (greenery) on the roof. Most people don’t actually live 24/7 in the sukkah, nor do most people sleep in it, but you’re commanded to at least sit and eat all your meals in it.

My rabbi and his family love Sukkot, and always have such wonderful meals during the four Yom Tov days of the holiday. On the first lunch, we have sushi and salmon, and on the second lunch, we have falafel. And for the dinners, we have hot apple cider with cinnamon sticks. This year, we also had awesome kosher apple cider doughnuts for a lunch dessert.

Sukkot ends with a holiday called Hoshanah Rabah, the Great Hoshanah, and the day after that, it’s Shemini Atzeret, the 8th Day of Assembly. At my shul, we do a sort of sneak preview of the next night’s holiday of Simchat Torah at evening services, with abbreviated Hakafot (dancing circles with the Torah).

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Simchat Torah celebrates the end of the yearly cycle of Torah-reading, and immediately begins all over again. People dance in big circles with the Torah. Now that I’m pretty much Orthodox in all but name, I don’t really mind that at my shul, I can’t dance holding a Torah. Some Liberal Modern Orthodox shuls allow it, and eventually I’d like to find such a community.

Sweet Saturday Samples—Yom Kippur Beach Walk

Last Saturday I won the short story contest at the blog YA Stands! If you’re interested in reading my historical love story, set in 1946 France and centered around a 16-year-old Hungarian couple, it’s under my new “Writing Samples” tab and called “Kálmán Runs Away.”

This week’s excerpt for Sweet Saturday Samples is another scene from Chapter 12, “High Holy Days,” of The Very First. It’s October 1938, Yom Kippur, and Cinni and Sparky are taking a walk on the beach in the afternoon. Since Sparky hasn’t reached the age of bat mitzvah yet, she isn’t obligated to fast all day. As they’re taking a walk, they see their friend Kit’s father and wonder what in the world he’s doing out of work. Mr. and Mrs. Green (who also happen to be blood third-cousins) are hiding a secret about their origins from everyone, but Mr. Green feels extremely guilty about it and sometimes does things in secret from Mrs. Green to get in touch with his roots.

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Cinni stopped talking as Mr. Green came within earshot. “Hello, Mr. Green.  Taking the day offa work?”

“I have reasons of my own for taking off work today.” He turned towards Sparky. “May you be sealed in the Book of Life, Miss Small.”

“You know today is Yom Kippur?” Sparky asked. “I didn’t know normal Christians knew or cared.”

“I have reasons of my own for knowing.” He pulled on his collar.

“We’re not that stupid,” Cinni said. “At least, not all of us.  I’m sure idiots like Adeline’s family don’t know or care, but some people would know if they’ve got Jewish friends.”

“Did you know anything about it before you met me?” Sparky asked. “Maybe you knew the name, but I don’t think you knew any specifics.”

“I know you sing a prayer called Kol Nidre at night.  That’s a really beautiful prayer, from what I remember of it.  It’s been awhile since I heard it, but not too long.”

“You heard Kol Nidre?  I thought you’d never been to a synagogue, and I haven’t seen any records of famous cantors in your collection.”

“It was in a movie at the Rerun Theater.  The Jazz Singer, with Al Jolson.  I was kinda disappointed when it turned out to be mostly silent, after all the talk I’d heard about it being the first real talking movie.  But that was onea the sound parts.”

“So I suppose tomorrow your family will start building your sukkah?” Mr. Green asked. “If you need additional plywood or schach or anything, you can let me know and I’ll loan you money or even buy it for you.”

“How do you know about schach or just Sukkot?” Sparky asked. “I didn’t think most Christians had ever heard about that holiday.”

“I’m not like most Christians.  Maybe more than anyone will ever really know.” He pulled on his collar again, then ran a hand through his hair, which he was constantly thankful was blonde.

“Thank you for your offer.  I’ll tell my parents and get back to you if they need help.”

“I can even help you construct it, if you need extra hands.” He turned pale as his stomach rumbled.

Sparky stepped back a bit. “Mr. Green, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were fasting for Yom Kippur.  If you’re hungry, you should go home or to a restaurant.”

“No, my wife thinks I’m at work.  She’d be hysterical if she found out I was taking the day off.  I try my best to avoid scenes with her.  Sometimes I regret marrying her, even though it was the right thing to do.” His eyes drifted to the waves lapping against the shore. “Well, I’m probably boring you girls.  Have a good rest of the day.”

Cinni stared at him as he walked off towards the other end of the beach. “Kit says he acts goofy like this from time to time, but she can’t figure out what causes it.  Sometimes it really ain’t best to fool around in grownups’ business.  You might find out stuff you wish you hadn’t known.”

“Do you think Mr. Green is secretly Jewish?”

Cinni laughed. “He might have some strange secret, but there’s no way that could be it.  He goes to church every week, knows all the prayers, eats non-kosher food, has an English name, and has blonde hair and green eyes.  And his parents were named Alexis and Josepha.  Who knows, maybe someday we’ll all find out the reason for his goofy behavior.”

Sparky watched a seagull landing. “Would you like to help me and Barry set up the food for my family’s break-the-fast before Barry and I have to go back to synagogue?  Poor Barry’s gonna be hungrier than me, since he’s expected to fast a lot longer.  He’s only three months away from bar mitzvah.”