The Day of Atonement
November, 8, 2010
Yet stay; heaven-gates are not so highly arched
As princes’ palaces; they that enter there
Must go upon their knees.
-The Duchess of Malfi, Act IV, Scene ii
Oh, look who died. That’s Leonard almost daily, sounding gleeful, reading some obit from the New York Times. It’s a bit jarring first thing in the morning, not the note on which I want to start my day. But by now I’ve gotten used to it. I used to skip the obits, too morbid, but now I read them too, just not aloud. Jill Clayburgh, only 66, Joseph Stein… Artists, writers, directors, movie stars. Soon it will be up to us, mere babies, to remember World War II. We shiver. 75 is old, but what about 73? They’re very well written these obits. Packed with history, they inform and instruct. Last week it was the soprano Shirley Verrett. The first time her parents, strict Seventh Day Adventists, heard her sing in performance, they went down on their knees to beg forgiveness for not having recognized or encouraged her talent.
I should go down on my knees, I realize. And not just to my children. The other day, a friend told me she had found me dismissive, of her and things she cares about. But when was this exactly? Was it recently at a cooperative dinner with old friends at her house? Or has she always felt this way-we’ve been friends now for 40 years. Just off-hand remarks of mine, she said. No examples. Because she had none, or didn’t want to say? I reach for it, the moment I said whatever I said. It might have had to do with tipping, but then again, maybe not. Moonlight and candle light, wine glasses, summer heat, but the conversation won’t come back. Leonard and my children call me a snob, and I know all too well that I can be dismissive. My parents often were: so and so was a pantywaist, another a pussy-footer, a Southern cracker. At different times I have dismissed Anais Nin, Kahlil Gibran, Hemingway, more recently, crossword puzzles, Martha Stewart, and Charlie Rose. But it pains me to think that my friends have felt the sting. I must become alert. I must watch myself.
These days I have the impulse to atone, to be at one with the universe. To listen to the things my parents wanted to tell me. To take back the mean things I did as an older sister. To show my godmother, Aunt Esther, who took care of me in loco parentis when I was in boarding school, the proper degree of affection, admiration, and respect. To begin over again with the students I failed to inspire. To tell David I never stopped loving him for a second when we adopted Sirene. To apologize to Sirene for not seeing. To make peace with Ernst’s family. To wipe away my misdeeds in 28 years of marriage. To say all the things I wish I’d said to Ernst. Oh hopeless proposition!
One year we decided to fast on Yom Kippur and to attend the service at a temple on Beverly Blvd Ernst had gone to with his family as a boy. Ernst’s cousin Herman agreed to go with us. In what spirit did we do this? I’m sure we paid no attention to the other marks of physical abstinence: no leather shoes, no major ablutions, no cosmetics, no sex. Nor did we seek to attain the level of angels or the protection of God. We undertook it lightly, a test to see if we could go one day without food or water. Nostalgia for Ernst, curiosity for me, for I had never been inside a temple. Part social occasion, a chance to see Herman. But when we got there, we were supposed to have tickets. That was the first thing. Probably the congregation had expanded since Ernst’s time, and Yom Kippur is like Christmas for Christians. People who never go, go. Men who didn’t have one could pick up a yarmulke on the way in. But tickets? That you had to pay for? It put me off. Then I was sent up to the balcony to find a seat among the women. It was noisy and crowded. There was some embarrassing squabbling which was all my fault, shiksa without a ticket. Far below us prayers were being said, the Ark of the Covenant paraded up and down. I can hardly remember anything about it, the only service I ever attended. I didn’t hear the reading of a passage from Jonah, or the piercing blast of the shofar at the end because Ernst and Herman had quickly had enough of fasting, of reliving their boyhoods, of being Jewish. They came to get me and, passing by a weeping woman reciting Kaddish in the lobby, we went out to lunch at a restaurant on La Cienega. I don’t remember the name or what we ate, but we entered as though through the mouth of an enormous fish.
This year, once again, I have let the Day of Atonement slip by, though I like the idea of clearing the slate. Once again, I did not observe the ten days of turning which follow Rosh Hashanah, a period of introspection, the time to ask forgiveness, in person, of everyone slighted or hurt during the past year. In thought, word, and deed, is that it? Couldn’t it be done via email, or left in a phone message? I think I’d rather be a Catholic. Confession once a week in darkness, not face to face with the person harmed, but through that slatted screen I’ve seen in movies, to a priest. Absolved, anonymous, all burdens lifted. For at least a week. Is this the cancer talking? Perhaps, if I come through it all with flying colors, as V. says, I’ll find that surgery has excised these morbid thoughts along with my uterus. But today, like Shirley Verrett’s parents, I go down on my knees. Figuratively, of course. Even the Duchess of Malfi stoops to die.