Here’s just the ticket for observing High Holy Days
By: Robin Washington, Lake County News Chronicle
I don’t know for sure, but I think can count the number of Jewish residents of Lake County on one hand.
That’s about five times more than when I first came here a quarter century ago, and maybe one reason I felt at home, because even in multicultural Chicago when I was growing up, there were few Jews in my immediate neighborhood. I was the only Jewish kid in two different grammar schools I went to, and it made me feel unique.
So on Jewish holidays my mother would take us across town to a synagogue near the high school where she taught. (As a Jewish teacher, she was assigned to a predominantly Jewish high school, if you want to know how de facto segregation works.)
We went less frequently as my brother and I approached our teens. Neither of us had a bar mitzvah on our 13th birthdays, and by the time I was in high school, we stopped going altogether. (I later had the equivalent of a bar mitzvah at what is now Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s congregation.) Still, we observed the holidays on our own.
So was my Jewish life in 1973 when I got a job as an usher in a movie theater. The manager, Jose, ran a very tight ship, and he scheduled me to work on Rosh Hashanah.
“But I’m Jewish,” I protested.
“Too bad,” he said.
I don’t know if Jose knew it when made the schedule, but that week the owner had rented out the theater to a synagogue that needed the extra space for its High Holy Day services. Rosh Hashanah came and congregation president, a jovial middle-aged man in a blue suit (I think his name was Manny) arrived to give me instructions.
“All we need you to do,” he said, “is to take the tickets and tear them in half, and put them in the box.” (Pre-paid tickets are traditional at many synagogues because handling money is forbidden on holy days.)
I said nothing and he repeated the instructions, adding, “We need you to do this because we can’t tear paper”—a form of work also forbidden—”because we’re Jewish.”
“I can’t either,” I replied.
“Why not?” he said.
“Because I’m Jewish, too.”
As an African American Jew, you get used to the incredulous looks asking “how-can-you-be-Jewish?” Even at 16, I knew to pre-empt it with “My mother’s Jewish,” which is the most universally accepted standard on the who-is-a-Jew issue.
When it sank in, Manny asked, “Why are you working?” I pointed to Jose, who was sulking in his office.
“Oh,” Manny said. This was a problem: The congregation needed the tickets collected, but they couldn’t ask another Jew, subject to the same restrictions they were, to collect them. Manny caucused with a few congregation leaders. One of the group went off a little ways and came back.
“OK,” he said. “I just talked to God. He says you can tear the tickets.”
The others didn’t agree and with the congregants arriving, we all took turns taking, and tearing, tickets. It wasn’t ideal but at least we were sinning together.
Finally, Manny went over to Jose and pleaded with him to call in someone else. Jose complied and 15 minutes later Siddiqi arrived.
I was invited to join the services and called my mother to join me. By Yom Kippur the next week, I was practically one of the gang—of 50 year old Jewish men! I remember Manny greeting me—for services this time, not work—smiling with his tongue hanging out, like Einstein.
The service was moving but long. I know I dozed. As we walked out, the bemusing transition from usher to Jew-distraught-over-ritual to fasting and atonement of Yom Kippur seemed a significant journey—until I noticed the newspaper box on the street. The headline blared of war between Israel and her neighbors.
Our ticket dilemma didn’t seem very important any more.
ROBIN WASHINGTON is the supervising editor of the Lake County News-Chronicle
Editor’s Note: I asked Robin if he had time to write a column about Yom Kippur for the News-Chronicle this week. I am so interested in how people celebrate and find meaning in spiritual things and I thought you might be, too.
It’s probably a good thing he agreed. When he told me he would be out of the office to observe Yom Kippur, I said, “Enjoy your holiday!” Yeah, I said it. I told him to 'enjoy' his day of fasting and atonement. *face meet palm* Clearly, I needed to brush up on my understanding of Jewish holidays. He razzed me good naturedly, but sent this column a little while later. Thanks, Robin.