The writer’s great-uncle

The face of Rosh Hashanah

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The face of Rosh Hashanah

The writer’s great-uncle

As a child (and not without reason), I pictured Rosh Hashanah with a face: Head of the Year, such an evocative translation. I saw a pair of benign eyes perched on the cover of the Jewish calendar that our local funeral parlor circulated annually, peering at me encouragingly as another year came around. Of course, there were 10 days of repentance and amends-making, and the fearsome image of a fateful book closing. But mostly there was the magical promise that we can always begin anew. To make beginnings literal, each fall we chose new dresses and patent leather shoes.

Let us hope our lives will be long, with many years of beginning anew, preferably in robust health and spirits. The beauty of Rosh Hashanah is looking ahead. But at a certain age, it is also looking behind. The patent leather shoes I think of now are shoes that never belonged to me.

Our family patriarch was a childless great-uncle. He cared for his four older sisters until their deaths – dutifully and faithfully, though not with great affection and not for spiritual purposes. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t a teaspoon of religious belief in him. Yet every Rosh Hashanah he purchased a seat in a nearby synagogue, shook out a suit, wandered into the remote land of his extra closet, and reached for a box on the highest shelf. This was not easy to do, since he was 5-foot-5.

Inside the box were his patent-leather shoes.

To the best of my knowledge, he owned one pair his whole life. There was something celestial about them. They emerged from the closet twice a year (the box came down on Yom Kippur, too; he did not know that wearing leather is prohibited). The other 363 days they lived in darkness, tethered to velvet shoe trees. For some of us, High Holidays are prayer, or kugel, or hope, or honey or community. For him, they were shoes.

In no way did patent leather fit his personality. He was not a gregarious man, and never flashy. He was not a vain man, either; coke-bottle glasses, baldness and the absence of height prevented it. But these shoes were his pride, and when he wore them twice a year, though they didn’t have lifts, he seemed taller.

I can picture him in the synagogue sanctuary. The shoes are bioluminescent. He is a stranger to the congregation, turning the pages of a prayer book he can’t read. For that matter, I doubt there’s much in it he cares to know – he was Jewish in patent leather only. Still, every year, he came and sat (and stood up, when required). After services he would swing by his sisters’ apartments on the way back to his own, dropping off food and picking up bills to pay. It was the steadfast continuation of an ongoing task. He never asked for thanks, and he never lingered for long.

One by one, his sisters grew ill, until only the last was left – and then she was gone, too. I flew in for the funeral. We went to dinner, then to our separate rooms. What could be said?

There was no need to leave for the cemetery until late the next morning, but I couldn’t sleep that night, and woke long before dawn. I remember turning my bedroom doorknob with the fingers of a burglar, creeping into the living room, expecting to wait by myself for daylight.

He was already up, in a suit, sitting in the dark in the middle of the sofa, his hands on his knees. By the glow of a nightlight plugged into a wall, I could see the shoes. They weren’t for beginning anew. They were for ending.

Afterwards, until he grew ill himself, my great-uncle continued to buy his High Holiday synagogue seat. In our phone conversations, I would tease him. You’re going to wear The Shoes, right? He would answer just as lightly. Yes, of course, he was. Then he would move on to something about the Dallas Cowboys or the Texas Rangers, teams that filled him – as prayer did not – with a genuine enthusiasm for life.

Sometimes I have wondered: Even in the absence of faith, are there a rare few among us who have nothing to atone for? Is this possible? If so, I must put him forward: a man who took care of everyone, until there was no one left to care for.

I mostly wear sneakers now, which, at this age, help with balance. My great-uncle has been gone more than 10 years. Once again, the eyes of the head of the year gaze benevolently on us and we can begin anew. We try to recognize ourselves for who we are, to compensate for what we are not, and to make amends where and if we can.

I miss him beyond words. Θ

Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist.

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