By Rebecca Rikleen
I had barely returned home from the Emergency Room with a diagnosis of congestive heart failure and aortic valve stenosis, gasping for breath, unsteady, frightened, when my next door neighbor phoned. Her voce was weak, halting, hesitant, ”I’m about to ask you ….perhaps you are willing…. It’s Rosh Hashonah ….I feel the need to sing the prayers….will you let me join you?”
“Of course. This place is neglected. Herb and I just ate supper. We could have invited you. I’m sorry.”
“My place is just as neglected. I hate to be alone. I feel the need.”
“It’ll take me 10 minutes to gather what I need to bring.”
She came carrying two heavy books, the volumes dedicated especially to Rosh Hashanah, one larger and heavier, in larger print.
We sat next to each other, with Herb in a chair facing us, a few feet away. He said he couldn’t see well enough to read. It was all unfamiliar to him.
She opened the books from the back to the place she had chosen to begin. “You will read the opening lines. I will respond with the following lines.”
“I can’t read the Hebrew,” I said.
“That’s all right.”
Cramped and uncomfortable, bending over the larger book in my lap, I started:
Blessed are You, Eternal God, from Whom the evening flows.
We find You in the mysteries of time, the passage of seasons, the night sky and all its wonders. You roll light away
from darkness and darkness from light, causing day to pass and twilight to fall.
The heavy book, the cadence, the weight of the ancient new year ritual made my words come measured, sonorous. The words had music had magic in them.
And then she sang. Bell like purity, soft. Her voice was usually a robust mezzo soprano. She is a Cantor and has led many services. She has soloed in many concerts and operas. Now with cancer, her pants hung in hollow folds. Her pink cheeks were grey and gaunt. Her hair sank in spiritless strands. But her songs in flawless Hebrew in clear pure tones had the sound of angels.
I, who am a scientist, who know nature is a heartless task master, remember my forebears and am moved by the stately poetry, the exquisite melodies, and honor the new year and Day of Atonement, set in ancient times of harvest. In this time each year we examine our flaws and atone for the misdeeds of the past year. I rose above my pains and fears to feel for my neighbor, to remember who brought me to this day and to be thankful.
I, a 90 year old with heart failure, he, a 92 year old with unsteady gait and no memory, and she, a 70 year old ill diva, we three gathered in an untended living room to find comfort, to crack our voices on poetry and music of love, comfort, kindness, striving for good.
let peace descend on us, on all Israel, and all humanity,
and let us say: Amen.
May the Source of peace send peace to all who mourn,
and comfort to all who are bereaved. Amen.