The services were held in a cavernous events hall (because at the time, our shul, now a large campus, was literally a house and the services were held in a living room).
Many conservative Jews like my parents didn’t attend Shabbat services regularly. But they all wanted to go to the High Holy Day services, Rosh Hashanah (the new year) and Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), which take place 10 days part in that order.
My parents were going through an extremely messy divorce and my father had all but abandoned my mother, my brothers and me. But there I was, sitting next to Zane, in what felt like an airplane hanger to a 13-year-old dressed in an ill-fitting and very uncomfortable suit and rumpled tie.
I was so tired and bored that I could barely keep my eyes open when the rabbi called my name from the bimah. He was asking me to come forward to hold a Torah — the scroll where the five Books of Moses are transcribed — during part of the service.
Suddenly, I was paralyzed with fear. As hard as I tried, I simply couldn’t move my legs.
But after a long and awkward silence that seemed like an eternity, I mustered the courage to head to the bimah where I was handed the sacred text.
My fear — shared by 13-year-olds across the world, I imagine — was that I would drop the Torah.
As we were erroneously taught back then, a person who dropped a Torah would have to fast for 40 days. And everyone who saw the Torah drop also had to fast for 40 days.
But what weighed on me even more greatly was knowing that I would be letting my entire community down.
Although this was long before I would become a serious student of writing, the importance of this text was acutely engrained in me.
“Man is drowning in the sea of life,” one of my Hebrew school teachers once told the class (which was held in a trailer outside the house where the sanctuary was located). “The Torah is G-d’s way of throwing him a lifesaver,” he said, using the gendered synecdoche for “humankind” as was the custom in the early 1980s.
Would I drop G-d’s “lifesaver”? I thought to myself.
I had sweat through my suit jacket and was still shaking when the cantor had me pass the scroll back to him and I went back to my seat next my father. But I hadn’t dropped the Torah.
Today, on Erev Yom Kippur, the day before the Day of Atonement, that memory fills my mind. Except now, our children are my Torah.
In a world very literally gripped by plague, in a world where the air quality is so bad that my brothers and mother can’t go outside in my native California, in a world where Biblical flooding wipes away cities on the coast where I now live, in a world where my white neighbors still contend that people who don’t look like them must “prove their worth,” where my white neighbors tell me to “get the hell out of America” because of my beliefs…
In this world, Georgia and Lila Jane are my lifesaver. G-d has blessed us with them and we are called to nurture and protect them the same way we observe Their word.
Today, 40 years after I didn’t drop that scroll, they and their future are what give me hope for a world better than the one we brought them into.
May your fast be easy and your Yom Kippur meaningful.