When I was a child, I loved the holidays and looked forward to them with great anticipation. We would drive to the Bronx and sleep over at my grandparents apartment in Parkchester, and walk to their shul each service, because my grandmother insisted. She used to have a tray in the kitchen with ten to twelve yartzeit candles burning for each member of her family who had passed away. Every year we would watch the old retired rabbi blow the shofar at the conclusion of Yom Kippur which signaled we made it for another year, and also to see if he could still blow the shofar without collapsing. Toward the end we even took bets to see if he could still do it. We sat in the same seats every year, which were next to the seats of my uncles, aunts, and cousins, in our family section. When the shofar was sounded at the end of Neilah, we hugged and kissed each other and went back to my grandparent’s apartment where my grandmother was already heating up the large break the fast meal made mostly from recipes she inherited from her mother when she came here from Europe.
We never walked all the way around the buildings to get home. My grandfather knew all the shortcuts through the different apartment buildings, going in the back door of one, coming out the front, through several buildings which saved us a good fifteen minutes on the overall walk. With the heightened security of today, we could have never done it that way, but it was a different time. When we got home, fifteen to twenty people would be squeezed around an expandable table with folding chairs, but we all made it. We had two huge fans blowing to cool the place down, because the apartment wasn’t air-conditioned and it was uncomfortable because they lived on the seventh floor, but it was the best time of my life. Family was there, and God was there. I experienced God in the synagogue, but not alone, as part of my family, and as part of the Jewish people.
Over the years, things changed. My parents and grandparents moved to Florida. I went to college, married, and had my own family. It was more difficult for the family to come together. Life happened. As I studied and learned, The holidays we celebrated were focused on atonement, and reconciling with other people when we wronged one another. I took the responsibilities of spirituality seriously and taught them to my children as they grew up. They are now with their own families so I don’t see them as much any more. Now when the holy days come, its hard for me to get excited like I did when I was younger. I have a tray of yartzeit candles burning in my kitchen for my grandparents, nephew, brother-in-law and other relatives who have passed away. I appreciate the religious meanings of the holy days, and consider the themes but something is missing for me. Holidays are about religion and faith, but they are also about family and friends. I think of the words of Qohelet, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, Before the difficult days come, And the years draw near when you say, “I have no pleasure in them.””
It would be easy to sit back and recall my childhood memories, light a yartzeit candle for them, mourn and say, “they are gone.” But my life is not over yet. The final chapter has not yet been written. Life is still a gift from God, and we have a stewardship to use our lives for good. I try to spend holidays with friends. I try to make some of the foods my Grandmother made, and I pray, remembering my creator. We can’t stop the things in our lives that change, but the one thing that doesn’t is God. If I remember my creator, AS HE WAS in the days of my youth, I will not say I have no pleasure in the years that come. He keeps my mind and heart young, and transforms my days to joy. In Malachi it says “For I, the LORD, do not change;” even as my life around me changes and the ones around me change, God is the same to me as I get older as He was when I met him in shul when I was a child.