The New Year

This is the Gaon (Genius) of Vilna, allegedly my ancestor

It is the new year for us Hebrews (as we were called at Ellis Island) or Israelites (as we're called in France, because Juifs is too reminiscent of the Nazi occupation). My father used to say he was a WASH--a white Anglo-Saxon Hebrew. He wasn't Anglo-Saxon except in language. And much culture. I always think of my father during services, because he was known for whispering bons mots and sharing sugarless chewing gum. There's a prayer called the Aleynu, during which, according to tradition, Jews would kneel. That was discontinued because it was too much like Christianity, the rabbi said today. Generally, we bow our heads at one point in the prayer. The next sentence of the prayer begins with: Lifneymelech. See, it sounds like Lift, my father used to always say. Today some of us did kneel, because it is a high holiday. A big deal. Christians have Christmas and Easter, and we have Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Ten days apart. During which we are under judgment: Shall we be written in the book of life? Should we be allowed to live? Should we die? All this is metaphorical, at least to me. We twist the tradition this way and that in order to make it relevant. Or I do. When you look at the prayers, you can't *not* think about the Holocaust. If you're me. You can't *not* think about the professions of faith you're chanting, the images of divine light and protection you're conjuring. They believed all this (some of them), they believed they were protected, and they were torn from civilization and murdered.

There is a portion of the Yom Kippur service that recognizes martyrs through time. You are not encouraged to be a martyr, but I suppose the architects of the religion have thought that it's important to stay aware of the historical defenders of the faith. As a community we mourn them. Do we pay tribute? Perhaps. We make them (some of them) the stuff of legend. Role models in extremis.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg tells us: When the righteous Rabbi Akiva was flayed alive by the Romans for daring to rebel, we are told that the angels shrieked in horror. "It is my decree," was God's inscrutable answer. Or as Stanley Elkin once put it in his novel "The Living End" (this is paraphrase:) God is asked why he created so much havoc and suffering on earth. He answers: It made a better story.

As always, our martyrs are better than their martyrs. Our guerrillas are freedom fighters, theirs are terrorists. God's on our side.