The High Holidays Bring Kansas City Jews Together To Hear The Shofar. That's Not Easy In A Pandemic
Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur bring Jews to the synagogue who barely set foot in a temple the rest of the year. I'm one of them, even though my mom is a rabbi.
Every day for the last month, at around 9:45 a.m., my mom has blown a ram's horn — known as a shofar — inside her small Overland Park apartment. In case you've never heard a shofar, it makes airy blasts that can be quick, tight and persistent, or drawn out, hollow-sounding and plaintive.
The main thing is, you can't ignore the shofar. And it's probably a confusing thing to hear from across the hall on a weekday. But so far, no one has complained. It's 2020. Who knows why anything is happening, right?
"I have wondered," she admits, looking off toward the hallway with a laugh.
My mom, Rabbi Beryl Padorr of Ohev Shalom, is blasting horns at home to get ready for the most important Jewish holidays of the year. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.
"Traditionally the shofar is blown a hundred times during the service on Rosh Hashannah," she says, trying to explain why she has to get in shape for the big day. She's practicing at home because, like many of us, that's where she's been working for the last six months. It's also where she'll lead High Holy Day services via Zoom, with family photos of me and my brothers in the background, along with the special holiday dishes I'd help set at the table any other year.
I'm much less observant than my mom. I cobble together my own version of a Jewish life, embracing the traditions that connect me to my family or impart meaning to a vague but sincere spiritual quest. I do a lot of thinking alone in nature, with Jewish rituals grounding what would otherwise just be eccentric behavior.
But I can't imagine the High Holy Days without being present when the shofar blows. Other traditions, like eating apples dipped in honey, I can do anywhere and, honestly, any time. To hear the shofar, I go to a certain place at a certain time. Other Jews all over the world do the same. It's like roll call. The point is to be present.
This year, shofars won't sound in synagogues.
"The problem is, you're blowing and projecting and sending your air droplets through the shofar into the air, and that's like creating a coronavirus fountain," my mom tells me.
That's why her congregation and others will be outdoors this Sunday. Shofar blowers will release their sound into the world, their backs turned to congregants for safety.
The purpose of the High Holy Days is to start the new year with a clean slate. You reflect on the difference between the way you live and the way you want to live, the person you are and the person you want to be. Then you celebrate the gift of another year to try harder, do better.
Yom Kippur is generally understood to be the downer of the two. You're supposed to fast from sundown to sundown — no food, no water, no coffee, searing headaches. You're supposed to spend all day standing up and sitting down, repenting for your sins, literally beating your chest. This is your last chance, before the new year, to be written in the book of life.
My mom, who learned Hebrew and became a rabbi in her 50's, says it's the happiest day of the year.
"You know the Unatanah Tokef?" she asks. "It's the prayer with the section that goes, 'Today it is decided who shall live and shall die...'"
Oh, I know that prayer, alright. It's straight-up terrifying.
Who shall live and who shall die, who shall perish by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst...
It goes on like this for a very long time. I remind my mom how much I hate this prayer.
"It's not a matter of punishment or reward," she says. "It's a matter of how do you want to live your life, knowing that any of these things could happen to you. It's really looking at the stark recognition that all of these things are possibilities. You take this moment to really face it. If you faced it with that kind of intensity every day, you couldn't function."
This year, I argue, we have spent the last six months doing, collectively, just that. We've stopped doing things as usual. We've reflected on our lives, asking ourselves what matters and what doesn't. We've faced our mortality and recognized the errors of our ways. I ask my mom if she's worried that Yom Kippur might be too much in 2020.
"It might not feel as intense this year because we have been doing it every day," she suggests. "On the other hand, I think there's this underlying anxiety that all of us are feeling right now ... that we're all trying to keep a cap on and deal with on a daily basis. This might bring it to the forefront."
Her job, as a rabbi, is to make sure this experience is safe at a time when we can't be together to hold each other up (sometimes literally; people used to bring smelling salts to synagogues to keep from fainting toward the end of the services).
That's one of the many reasons she opted for a Zoom service, instead of distanced outdoor gatherings in masks.
"This way, we can see each other's faces. We can see each other's smiles. We can see each other's tears," she says. "Even if it's a bunch of tiny little squares, we can see each other's faces."
The hardest part this year, for me and my mom, will be our separation after that final shofar blows, when it's time to break the fast and step back into the joy of our lives, which we usually do around a table with those dishes in her Zoom background.
What that final blast of the shofar means is not just time to eat. It's time to eat with your family.
The rabbi side of my mom has been so busy caring for everyone else's spiritual and emotional well-being this High Holy Day season that she's forgotten how hard it might be for her.
But, when we talk, she cries when she says she'll miss passing around a loaf of challah, everyone breaking off a piece and devouring it.
"It's part of sharing the goodness of our life," she explains. "Especially if you get one with raisins."
My mom and other rabbis will figure out how to bring the sound of the shofar to Jews in Kansas City. It will be different, but it will still happen.
It's still up to us to figure out how to live joyously in this new year, which we'll wrestle with, continuously, after that final shofar blows.