07 Oct Sixty Years After
Year of Birth 5738
This post is dedicated to my parents who immigrated to the United States sixty years after last seeing the inside of a synagogue.
Growing up in Kiev I heard this greeting in its Eastern-Pale-of-Settlement version—Lashuna Tóive plus another word that gave my mouth a-twisting—from my grandmother’s exchanges with her siblings and landsleit. It sounded funny and nonsensical, especially in my tortured rendering. It did not resemble Yiddish. She refused to translate it, let alone confess that it was Hebrew, the illegal tongue I was not aware existed.
The family doggedly safeguarded my ignorance of certain topics, religion high on the list. What I didn’t know I could not share with strangers or not strangers, for that matter, and thus invite disaster.
On Rosh Hashanah, there was just the Lashuna Tóive. Yom Kippur stood out because of a strange ritual: we ate apples dipped in honey before dinner! The dinner itself was nothing short of extravagant—gefilte fish, rich chicken soup, stuffed chicken skin, honey cake, and compote thick with raisins, prunes and dried apricots.
I often say that I was born in Chicago when I was thirty-one. In this new life, I suddenly discovered that the subliminal messages and the funny-sounding words had not faded into oblivion. Instead, I was steeped in them. And I finally learned the translation of that mysterious greeting: “May you be written in the Book of Life for a good year.”
My cursory connection to Jewish tradition impressed some fellow immigrants. They consulted me on the meaning of holidays and the rules that governed them. We all shared the “Nationality Jewish” inscription on the fifth line of our passports. But only I earned, albeit not for long, nicknames “Chief Jew” and “Judaism advisor.”
Good Year Assured
My parents were born in Chicago, too, in their old age. Their new life made them giddy like birds that flew out of a cage accidentally left open.
Every year, beginning on their first American Yom Kippur day in the Jewish Year of 5738, we waited for them in front of their little shul on the north-east corner of Sheridan Rd and Pratt Ave. They walked out, spring to their step, as though 24 hours of fasting did not count and 60 years did not separate my father from cheder and my mother from her grandmother’s homeschooling.
In the car they wished us to be inscribed for a Good Year in the Book of Life in a tone that suggested that they had already secured the Good Year for us. And you know what? They had.
The Jewish New Year 5777 has arrived! Shana Tova!