"It was pleasant to look down on the bobbing ocean of men below, and to see the top of the rabbi’s head. We rose and sat and rose and sat."

Tears of clarity on Yom Kippur

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Tears of clarity on Yom Kippur

"It was pleasant to look down on the bobbing ocean of men below, and to see the top of the rabbi’s head. We rose and sat and rose and sat."

All was well on the second floor of the synagogue in my early childhood. My father, praying in the men’s section, was comfortable with Orthodoxy. My mother was one of those spouses who went to services twice a year, recognized none of the prayers, felt herself a forlorn Jew, vowed remediation, and then forgot until fall came around again.

On Rosh Hashanah, the second floor was full of friendly whispering – town criers with news of recent divorces and deaths – and puffs of eau de parfum. Occasionally, as I recall, one upper-level congregant or another would crack a piece of gum at the wrong time. It was pleasant to look down on the bobbing ocean of men below, and to see the top of the rabbi’s head. We rose and sat and rose and sat, and our mothers assured us lunch was coming.

Eventually, the synagogue moved to another part of town; a more solvent section. The sooty brick front disappeared, the wood was light and modern. Slashes of stained glass throughout the sanctuary seemed full of symbolism without explanation. Now we sat on the same floor as the men, though of course in a section behind them, and in many ways it was not as interesting. The view was no longer birds-eye, and our freedom of communication was severely limited.

This change of altitude had another consequence. In the new building we were on the first floor, and the rabbi – not a lover of children as far as I, a child, could tell – looked down at us from a high bimah. His face came into my view for the first time, and that was when I began to notice: on Yom Kippur, he wept. It happened every year in the new building. No doubt it had happened in the old building, too, but I had not paid attention; the second floor was too preoccupying. Now, standing above us, he was clearly weeping.

The rabbi’s High Holiday sermons had always been long; endless, if you were of a certain age. I ought to remember some of what he talked about, but all I recall, looking up, is that toward the end of the sermon he would start to cry and sometimes to sob. His voice would harshen and break. When he left the bimah to sit in his high-backed chair, he looked to have wept himself into another state. Afterward, the silence seemed endless: a holy pause. First the tears and then the quiet filled me with discomfort and terror.

To a child, no good comes when an adult sobs in public, especially someone so remote and revered. Sobbing made him formidable, and I could not fathom it. Were these tears for all of mankind? If they were, why was he so remote and forbidding, especially with children … which was to say, with me? He never leaned down to acknowledge us after services when our parents shook his hand in the crush of admirers. He never smiled at us like the other adults. He did not notice us. Until a child turned 13 he probably did not exist for the rabbi (I eventually decided). It was possible that girls never existed.

Yet, he sobbed in front of us all.

There was pain in the rabbi’s sobbing, and, anger, too. This I did not understand, either. In my fortunate world, days followed their safe routine, with a weekend securely at the end of them. Why these frightful tears? What was their cause, what was their purpose? Who was this weeper?

Recently in the middle of a night – an hour when questions rise with nowhere to hide them – I went searching. Computers had not existed when the rabbi joined our synagogue, but now, because of them, there are no secrets. You can find anyone.

An obituary popped up. It was full of knowledge perhaps not my business to know. The rabbi was born in New Jersey (not, as I had imagined, under an olive tree in an ancient Mediterranean land). He entered our congregation while still in training, at the age of 22. He married more than once. He had met with the Pope and Sadat. He had four children. Hopefully, he noticed them.

None of these facts explained his tears. Something else did. I am older – much older than he was when I looked up at him – and more of the world has come into clearer focus. Each year, Rosh Hashanah remains a pleasant day, a day to look forward to. Mothers wear no perfume anymore, but lunch always comes. Recollection is sweet.

But Yom Kippur recalls the sound of that sobbing, and half a century later, I understand it better. It was the sobbing that came from knowing too much. The rabbi knew (as fortunate children do not) how much there was to sob about in the past. I know how much there is to sob about in the present. Were we to meet today in this sad world, the two of us might finally greet each other.

Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist.

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