On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Moe Greenberg puts on his suit jacket without a word and drives to temple for the second time, this time alone. During the morning service, my father felt entitled — between call and response, a lackluster sermon, the unseemly organ music of our Reform congregation — to sneak outside the sanctuary for a cigarette, wander around the lobby peering at memorial plaques and tributes that mocked his efforts. (“Fifteen years on the building committee and not a goddamn mention!”) Now, the sun close to setting, he will stand still, save for a slight rocking that looks like davening (praying) but is in fact bad circulation. He will endure the stuffy room, his boredom, his irritation with all congregants, and that horse’s ass Roy Hirshfeld in particular (“On the pulpit — wouldn’t you know it? — asking for money again!”). He will put up with it all to say Kaddish for his parents, inflecting Aramaic words he cannot understand, reciting in a lilting mumble the phrases I emphasize now when I say Kaddish for him.
The form of the Kaddish familiar to most Jews is Yatom (literally, the Orphan’s Kaddish), also called the Mourner’s Kaddish. It is recited at the end of all worship services by Jews observing a period of mourning for a family member or commemorating the yarzeit, the anniversary of a family member’s death.
Because Moe’s yarzeit falls in early summer, every nuance of the sun’s angle, the sweat on my back, the season’s long hours remind me that my summers are now tempered by impending sorrow — not unlike the onset of fall, with its melancholy overtones and party’s-over resignation: pack away the shorts and fold up the sun chair, soon now for sweaters and 4:30 sunsets.
I didn’t live in San Diego when Moe died. San Diego was the place my brother had moved his dental practice in 1975; where my parents would retire in 1978; where my father would gather us for a close call in 1983 — life-threatening pneumonia — and where he would close the deal in 1984, first suffering a stroke and then succumbing to a heart attack. When I moved here in 1986, I didn’t have to transport Moe with me the way I schlepped my boxes in the U-Haul. Though the Moe of my childhood stayed behind in Marin County, Moe’s death surrounds me here.
As I drive Pomerado Road a dozen years later, blue triangular signs announce the hospital before my mind registers: this is where the paramedics drove him, this is where his speech slurred, this is where the taxi took my sister Donna, mid-meeting, when the message interrupted — “Your father’s had an emergency” — while I yapped on the phone in my studio apartment 500 miles north and prepared to go shopping.
I still have the belt from the kimono I bought the afternoon my father died. For years I’d admired an older friend’s blue-and-white silk kimono, which hung on a silver hook in her bathroom. When I borrowed it, I was closer to the woman I wanted to be. Fresh from a shower, hair clipped haphazardly atop my head, kimono belted over damp flesh, I felt more sensual, more possible.
That summer afternoon in July, around 4:00, when my eldest sister, Ellen, calls me, I had just snagged a ten-buck bargain: a red-and-white cotton Hawaiian print kimono with openblock sleeves and matching belt. Back in my tiny studio, as I pulled the kimono out of the bag, the phone rang. Ellen’s tone, soft and sad, must have carried more information than what lodges in my memory: “Dad died this afternoon."
For the second time in my life, my knees give out (the first time was a swooning kiss, the kind you don’t believe until you’re in one). I hold onto the edge of my round wooden kitchen table, but it isn’t support enough for the weight of my descent.
These days, my visits to Moe’s grave site are a solitary ritual reserved for anniversaries and birthdays, but they seldom comfort me. One exit off 805 takes me from Sorrento Valley’s poke-along traffic and corporate high-rises to surreal green grounds and marbled statuary. A delivery truck whizzes past as I wait to turn, then roll through the wrought-iron gates of El Camino Mortuary, gravel popping beneath my tires. I pull my car up along the gutter, and it slants against the dip, obscuring the black-on-white stenciled “JEWISH LAWN.”
Out of respect for other visitors, the stillness of this warm summer day, I nudge the car door shut and step lightly onto the soft lawn. Short pieces of grass stick to my shoes as I step carefully around the headstones, negotiating the length of what were once ESTHER SIMON, MILTON MANKIEWICZ, DOTTIE FEINGOLD.
As I wander sideways along the rows — DEVORAH TANNER, HERBERT HELLER, NATHAN RABINOWITZ — a swirling panic that I’m lost again (is he by that tree? below the bench?) threatens whimper-tears that aren’t for Moe but for me. Why can’t I find him? Why do I go through this every time?
To remind myself, in the search for my father’s grave, that Moe Greenberg can still make me cry.
One of my great reliefs after his death, and I was the first to say it out loud — no more scrutiny. No more close inspection when I got off the plane or out of the car or walked into the house. Have I gained weight? How’s my hair? Am I better or worse?
At Ellen’s wedding, my curly hair is pinned up, off my neck. It’s not quite long enough for a chignon, but the attempt makes me feel sophisticated and a little sexy.
“What’s that hair on the back of your neck, Susie?”
“What hair, Dad?” My right hand shoots back to feel for out-of-place curls.
“That hair on your neck back there. Can’t they shave that?”
In home movies from the early ’50s, my father, just 40, is fat for the first time in his life, a condition he would never endure again. Forever after, he boasted of his efforts to keep himself trim while observing, “Susie, tell me. Are you on a diet to gain weight?”
On a “motor trip,” as he called them, through the Canadian countryside near Ottawa, miles of two-lane highway lined with pines and maples, dotted by cabin-style motels with arrowed signs, Moe slides out from the shotgun seat of Uncle Lou’s Chevy and strikes a profile. Though his prominent nose registers first, even sideways his face is wide and pasty. A coveted fedora, purchased the previous winter, perches slanted atop his head with movie-star flourish, blocking the details of his face — the blue eyes, the brown curly hair, the gap between his two front teeth.
As I watch his head rotate from left to right to left again on discolored 16mm-to-VHS tape — the colors appearing hand-tinted, all movement a shaky camera’s slow motion — I imagine he hopes this display will engender jealousy in Uncle Lou, a droopy-eyed, balding sad sack stuck behind the wheel as Moe’s chauffeur. I tut to myself, “Oh, Daddy,” first with contempt, then with a slow smile of indulgence.
The only person to feel jealousy will be Moe’s older self, a gray-bearded, bird-legged hypochondriac envying the girth and ardor of his mid-life.
“I used to put away a loaf of bread at dinner. A loaf of bread, can you believe it? And butter, too. Eh, Syl?”
“If you say so, Moe," my mother sighs. “I don’t remember.”
“You know, Susie,” Moe whispers as my mother clears the table, “your mother’s not much in the memory department.”
Another sullen summer, home from college, working a tedious job, living with my parents after a year on my own. Tonight’s entertainment: Moe’s Movies.
On screen, my three-year-old self seems more interested in eating the geraniums in our backyard than sitting on Moe’s lap. When he finally gets me settled, I look dazed and unsure it’s where I want to be. After a few seconds and some forced smiles from Moe, pointing and gesturing to the camera, I squirm off his lap and continue my quest for edible foliage.
My father is already gray by the time I’m in second grade. It isn’t until my teacher asks, when Moe drops me off at school for a field trip, “Susie, is this your grandfather?” that I realize he is much older than the other fathers. I am desperately unhappy to discover yet one more difference between my peers and me — like being pudgy, having curly hair, and wearing glasses.
The early-’60s boom of tract housing sprouted new homes and suburban communities along the corridors north of San Francisco, where my father matched his natural salesmanship and gift of gab with a viable product. The years he sold real estate parallel the years of my childhood, all spent in the same house, the one purchased in 1960, when his career had just begun.
Soon after his first flush, when business cards and note pads became necessary, it occurred to my father that “Moe” might be a problem. Though contemptuous of Jews whose assimilation had progressed to the point of name changes (Greenberg could be hidden as Green), he wasn’t beyond “enhancing” for the purpose of promotion. Hank Greenberg, who had played baseball with the Detroit Tigers and later the Pittsburgh Pirates in the ’40s and ’50s, was a recognizable hook. To capitalize on this association, Moses Joseph Greenberg became M.J. “Hank” Greenberg.
I don’t think it bothered Moe that he knew nothing about baseball, never went to a game, never took his son to a game, never paid attention to a game, never knew a score or a team or statistics. If the nickname sold him a few more homes, it was worth it. During his best years, between 1960 and 1964, he claimed to have sold homes to “most of those kids in your class,” and it might have been true. This didn’t stop him from using me, in the waning years of his productivity, as a spy, so that news of a classmate’s departure wouldn’t reach multiple listing before it got to him.
“You need to tell me the minute you hear someone’s moving, Susie. I mean right away."
And when Moe called my friend’s parents, and they didn’t want to list with him, there was silence at the dinner table. It was worse when I didn’t inform at all.
“Isn’t that Farmer girl in your class?"
My heart pounds.
“Just answer me. Is she in your class?”
“Did you know they were moving?”
“She wasn’t sure...”
“Didn’t I tell you to tell me right away, Susie? Right away. Do you realize the commission you might have cost me?”
I can think of three, four, five girlfriends who moved away during the years of my childhood. Not one of my losses became Moe’s gain.
When we were all in his house, sitting at his table — children closest, wife farthest away — Moe held court at family dinners: Thanksgiving, Passover, summer barbecues, birthday parties. When he told his jokes and charmed our friends with his stories, we beamed. At least four of us did. Not being his child relegated my mother to outsider status. She was neither as smart as we were, according to Moe, nor as besotted.
After my freshman year in high school, I was the only child remaining in the four-bedroom house — Donna at college, Jeff in his first dental practice, Ellen living and working in San Francisco. The illusion of my parents’ union had worn through. Dull disappointment clung to the walls like smoke damage. Resentment thrived, spilling unchecked in Moe’s ravings, chilled silent in Sylvia’s stare. In the moments we were a threesome in a shared joke or a good meal or a visit from a sibling, it was usually Moe and I who carried the flag and Syl who lagged behind, a reluctant trooper.
At some point past puberty and before adolescence invaded my system like a virus, my mother backed herself out of the room. Considering her fulltime job and adult worries (her own parents ailing and aging in Chicago under my aunt’s care), I want to excuse her now, 25 years later, for leaving the post. But at the time, I scorched her with my smart mouth. Into the breech, maternal instinct honed on three children, leaped Moe. He wasn’t blind to my mother’s frustration.
I was 14 when he wrote in his journal, “Susan treats Syl like shit! And in turn has guilt feelings for treating her like that and it goes from bad to worse. Poor Syl, she’s at the end of her patience. She controls herself with Ellen and Jeff, and a little with Donna, but Sue and I get the worst of it.”
Moe straddled his side of our triangle, but his sympathies leaned closer to me than his wife. Sweet and sour milk, I suppose, was better than no milk at all.
Late at night, after my mother’s asleep, I can hear him padding around the kitchen, opening and closing the refrigerator, spiriting the teapot off the burner before the whistle blows, checking the cupboards for a little sweet (“Why doesn’t she buy those oatmeal cookies I love?”). I know he’ll be at the French Provincial dining room table, in his usual spot at the head, the six place settings of our full family reduced to a lopsided three. Alone at the table’s apex, in his tattered terry cloth robe over long-john pajamas, he is dwarfed by the territory he once commanded.
I slipper-slap through the kitchen and into the dining room, where he hunches over a Reader’s Digest. A spoon, glistening with honey, rests in a saucer next to a mug of tea. A few cookies are fanned across another dish. Every few minutes he dips a cookie carefully into his tea until he spies me over the top of his bifocals, bemused and perturbed. It’s after midnight,
“...and you’ve got school tomorrow.”
I pull out my chair, the one to his left, and flop into the seat. “I can’t sleep,” I murmur, omitting that I spent much of the evening drinking coffee with my girlfriends.
“Want some tea?”
“Not really,” I yawn.
“Circumlocution,” he repeats, looking up from the magazine’s “Word Power” section and narrowing his gaze on me. “What does it mean?”
“Something about a circle, I guess, like maybe a round...locution?”
“Roundabout expression. You old smartypants, you...” He smiles and pats me lightly on the forearm. Shifting back in his chair as if to place a different frame around my face, he pauses for a moment, then breaks off a piece of cookie and pushes the plate toward me. “Get yourself some tea, smartypants. Those cookies taste better with a little hot tea to wash them down.” The next morning, I oversleep.
A rousing call from my mother — “SUSAN! Out of bed, NOW!” — provokes pillow-smothered whines and complaints. Moe knocks softly, opens my bedroom door an inch, pokes his head in, and whispers, “I’ll wake you in ten minutes, and we won’t tell Mom.” Muffled “Thanks, Daddy,” then, as he would say, “into the arms of Morpheus.” Moe writes me an excuse for first period. After that, I forge his handwriting and write my own notes. When I sign my last name today, it still looks like his.
A square Kodak print taken in 1973 frames us by the maple tree in our front yard. Against a scoop-neck, beige-and-black print jersey (Donna’s hand-me-down), I wear a Star of David, black wood with silver inlaid (Ellen’s hand-me-down), my talisman from last summer’s Jewish camp, where I developed huge calf muscles from hours of Israeli folk dance and longed for the guitar-playing boys with beards, who liked to talk to me but “just wanted to be friends.”
In a shiny, near-sharkskin black suit, white silk shirt, and salmon-colored tie, his gray hair contrasting handsomely with a tanned face, Moe belongs on a nightclub’s bandstand rather than our suburban lawn. He smiles a salesman’s toothy grin, the familiar gap between his front teeth closed now, the artful work of a patient dentist (“Took him three times to get that son-of-a-bitch impression right, but goddamnit, he did it!”), a dentist who is also his son. For those appointments, spread over consecutive Saturdays in March, I taxied my father across the Richmond-San Rafael bridge to my brother’s office in Berkeley.
On one of those Saturday afternoons, a two-week-old driver’s license in my purse and windy road conditions outside, I swap my fear of the bridge for the greater concern that Moe won’t approve my driving.
As I buckle my seat belt and look over my right shoulder, Moe sits against the Volvo’s leather seat in ski cap and jacket, rubbing his hands together.
“Where’re your gloves, Dad? It’s cold.”
“Goddamn bastards, I can’t find ’em.”
Motor running, gear shift in reverse, I edge down the driveway.
Moe reaches behind to the back seat — “Damnit!”—rustles about the paneled side compartment.
“Stop the car...” I pull up the brake. “Son of a bitch!” He pushes out the door, leaving it ajar. The motor’s exhaust puffs white smoke onto the driveway as he strides to the washer-dryer, lifts the lid, fumbles inside, fishes out one blue then one maroon sock, drops the lid, stomps back to the car, and gets in.
I want to laugh, but unsure of his mood and where it will take us, I stifle it to a smile and release the brake. Silently, the Volvo rolls down the driveway. Moe puts the blue sock on one hand, the maroon on the other.
“Okay, Susie,” he says. “Let ’er rip.”
We turn off our street, heading for the freeway. Moe taps me on the shoulder with a socked hand, grins slyly. “Let’s stop at the Pancake House.”
In my enthusiasm, I lean on the gas. I don’t see the red light until he barks, “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” Cautious and focused, I negotiate a smooth merge onto the freeway: no halting, no braking, no honking from drivers.
“Thanks, Daddy.” “You’re a good driver only because I taught you.” He pats me on the leg three times in quick succession. “Now your mother,” he says, pulling off first one then the other sock as the car’s heat kicks in, “she’s never been comfortable behind the wheel. But that’s because she learned too late. You have to learn young! While your reflexes are sharp. I bet you didn’t know your old man drove a truck when he was 13....”
I bet you I did, Dad.
By the time we stop for pancakes, I’m hopping trains with Moe in Chicago, hot dogs are a nickel, and he suspects Uncle Barney had dealings with Meyer Lansky after the Depression, because “for a man not that bright, your Uncle Barney made himself a load of dough.” “What did Barney do, Daddy?" I ask as we get back into the car.
My father emits a short burst of air through his teeth. “He sold toilets....”
Before another disquieting memory about Moe’s older brother Barney and his lucrative plumbing business threatens our buoyant mood, my father resumes backseat driving as I pull onto the freeway. “Get in your right lane, Susie. This guy in front of us is a nut case. You see how he’s driving? That herky-jerky business? You wanna stay away from nuts like that.”
After he chose an early retirement from real estate and went on Social Security at 55, my father habitually visited a favorite donut shop between 8:00 and 10:30 weekday mornings, where he drank coffee with a drop of cream and ate his daily buttermilk donut, which he broke in half, wrapping the remainder in tissue and tossing it in the glove compartment of his Volvo for later cravings.
I doubt he read the newspaper. Knowing Moe, more likely he grazed the headlines and waited for an audience. He might have charmed waitresses at first, who only stayed long enough to fill his coffee cup, but I’m certain he bored the other men sitting on stools along the white Formica counter. Bored them because he didn’t much care for listening—they might be talking politics, which annoyed him, or sports, to my father the ultimate waste of time. What did interest my father were his ailments. Like the bursitis in his right shoulder, which kept him up nights because he couldn’t sleep on his side as he liked to. Or the partial plate in his mouth that constantly needed relining. “It’s too loose,” he would tell my brother, who dutifully adjusted it. “I want it tight, hut not so tight it hurts.” What he wanted, Jeff told me later, was to have his own teeth back.
When my parents moved to Rancho Bernardo in 1978, my mother found work downtown, and my father started getting sick. He struggled with retirement, which for him meant putzing and cleaning and shopping and singing until my mother came home from work. She bused two hours every day to her job downtown at Third and C because, at 65, Moe was no longer sharp behind the wheel, especially on the freeway, “and I need an accident like I need a hole in the head.” When he wasn’t lamenting an angry boil on his nose or the pain in his calf that kept him from walking on the golf course, he stayed up late at night, taping letters to his children, which he never sent. In one, recorded two years before he died, he explained to my sister Ellen, who had moved to the East Coast, his lack of correspondence.
“I like to tell you good news, interesting news. I don’t have anything to tell you. I must find something to do. To return to selling, no way. I did my 40 years of working and I refuse to go back. Who would hire an old man with a white beard? And what can I do? Be a bus-boy in a restaurant? I don’t want you to think I’m complaining, but...”
First he tried fishing at the Carlsbad lagoon. “A line-up of fishermen — and the kids and the dogs and the hippies — to the point that in a short time, everything is fished out.”
Next it was adult education. “I tried taking a creative writing class, went to two sessions. Completely bored. I thought the instructor would teach you. Instead, they asked you to write. So everybody writes boring little anecdotes of what happened in their lifetime, and then it’s read out loud. To me it was ridiculous. And the teacher makes a comment and goes on to the next. Plus, the course is in Pacific Beach, and it lasts from seven o’clock and goes on to midnight. To schlep all the way to Pacific Beach and come back at one o’clock in the morning, no. I can’t do it.”
His excuses were reminiscent of what he wrote about me at 16.
“Susan is very bright but lazy, rebellious, hard to control, and still runs off at the mouth.”
“Remember, Susie,” Moe often counseled after advice-filled discussions at two in the morning, “to thine own self be true.” My father never read Shakespeare, much less Hamlet: nor did he understand who spoke the line, in what context, or why. He picked it up somewhere —I blame Rentier’s Digest —and pronounced it with great flourish and gravity.
Moe didn’t realize that he was speaking the words of Polonius, a character in a play, a character known for being an old fool.
My brother chose this line for my father’s headstone a year after Moe’s death, the words fixed forever in the gray marble just below “Loving Husband and Father” and “Moses Joseph Greenberg.” The irony doesn’t end with Polonius’s bombast. It wasn’t ourselves Moe admonished us to honor, it was to Moe that we must be true.
My first six months in San Diego I lived in Rancho Bernardo with my mother, a treacherous move for anyone who has lived on her own, made worse by our distorted memories of each other. When we weren’t in opposite corners licking wounds or complaining bitterly to our friends about the other’s imposition, we discovered much in common. We were both tall, single, wore a size nine shoe, and relished living alone. Even after I found work and a social life, I continued to visit her every two weeks or so, and not just for her mast chicken with cabbage and onions and potatoes, but for her friendship and the comfort of our familiarity. And the leftovers.
One evening, while I stack the dishes and clear the table (which would have required prompting when I was a teenager), she disappears into her bedroom and returns with a cardboard box of Moe’s journals and audio tapes. I am warned that much is missing.
“Momma, did you read them?”
“I skimmed them.”
“Did they make you miss him?” I blurt, the hopeful child.
She looks away, wiping something from the kitchen counter. “It was very rough on him when we moved to California. Driving across country in that station wagon with four kids.... Remember the heat?”
“Momma, I was a baby.”
“Of course you were, and a cute one too.” My mother pinches playfully at my cheek and smiles at the recollection, which both pleases and frustrates me. The one time in my life my appearance is unchallenged, and I can’t remember it.
“What was hard on Dad?” Her smile drops and she returns to the counter clean up.
“He had a horrible time trying to find work.”
Before I signed the papers on my condominium four years ago, when terms such as “loan approval," “dropping out of escrow," and “closing the deal” surfaced for the first time since Moe had used them, I came upon this entry from Moe’s journal, dated January 4,1960.
“Boy, is it tough to get a house today — all that waiting and then it’s going to cost us a fortune to get in. Thank God I finally got my permanent real estate license.
“I worry about Sylvia’s outlook. What a lousy deal to have her work so hard after being married nearly 18 years. The one ray of sunshine is the house. Poor kid, she wants it so bad, and we have to sweat to find out if we can have it even after paying out so damn much cash to get in."
My brother and I have stopped explaining to waitresses why we are smiling when they seat us and in tears by the end of our meal. Over one of our monthly dinners, Jeff tells me that when he was eight, Dad flipped someone off at a four-way stop because the other man refused to let him go first. Though my father thought him self tall for a Jewish man (he was 5' 10"), the man who gets out of the other car, red-faced and spitting mad, is taller and bigger. According to my brother’s memory, the man carried a bat. “Dad pushed me head-down onto the front seat, floored the motor, and we drove down an alley and hid under a lilac tree. We never talked about it again.” When I hold this picture in my mind — Moe, a full head of dark wavy hair, crouching with his sallow-skinned son in the bushes — my mind wants to move forward to the Moe who stayed up all night worrying when Ellen had a fever of 105 or when Donna fell down the stairs of the house on Spencer Avenue. I want to see the Moe who, at 47, moved to Northern Califomia with few prospects, four children, a wife ten years his junior, and the blind faith that he could do better. He sits at some crummy, makeshift table (the French Provincial still years away) staring, smoking, filling his composition book with pleas and plans.
“We may be moving soon into our new house, God willing we should get the loan! I pray God things will brighten up for us in our new house. It’s been such a damn strain on all of us.
“The kids are well, thank God, doing good in school. I made Jeff give up the paper route as I feel it was affecting his grades. We are going to pay Ellen to look after things after school. Still haven’t set a date for Donna’s and Susan’s tonsillectomies. We’re stalling as we are so in turmoil about our house!
“For myself I hold no pity as this move was my wish.
“For Sylvia, I am sorry. She did not ask for it.
“How many more men like me have subjected their wives to this extra aggravation to start anew?”
It is the conjunction of the images that lets me breathe: not cowardly but brave, cowardly and brave.
Moe’s ghost appears — at the end of a curb, in a parking lot, riding shotgun in my car — in one outfit: a robin’s-egg-blue shirt and gold double-knit slacks bagging off his thin frame. His sparse white hair stands on end as if he’s just awakened from a nap. And always the scratched, black-framed glasses pushed to the end of his nose, blue eyes peering above the bifocal.
Susie, did you keep off the cigarettes?
I did, Dad. It took me a few tries, but I haven’t smoked in seven years.
I couldn't kick the cigarettes, you know.
Probably why you died, Dad. The clot. The stroke.
That’s what I figure.
You know, Daddy, as you used to say, “For a bright man...”
I know, I know, "...not very smart." You always had that tongue.
Remember what you used to say about my tongue and my brain. Dad? That the connection was too good?
That you got from me. Who stayed up late at night and talked with you? Who told you to write in a journal?
You did, Daddy; I remember.
How about the curly hair? That you definitely got from me.
The curly hair makes me crazy. I’ve battled this curly hair my whole life.
But who would you be without that curly hair?
A few tapes are labeled, then scratched out, the word BLANK written across them in red felt tip. I play them just in case. Either he didn’t realize he could tape over recordings, or he didn’t trust that it would obliterate whatever he’d said. Instead, he turned the recorder on and went about his daily business. For 30 minutes, I can hear him running water, clearing his throat, blowing his nose, sighing, lighting a cigarette, inhaling, exhaling through a stuffed nostril. But forever fond of his own voice, the singing he saved.
Oh, how I miss you tonight, Miss you while lights are low. Oh. how I need you tonight, More than you’ll ever know. I was a fool just to roam, leaving you there all alone. Oh, I wouldn’t be lonely Or dream of you only,
Oh pal, how I miss you tonight....
Regardless of where my relationship with Moe rests—and it changes all the time — his memory tethers me to a contract that finds me looking for a parking space outside the Civic Theatre on a Monday afternoon, in just enough time for Yiskor services, a time of collective Kaddish recitation at the end of Yom Kippur. I will stand in the back of the auditorium, leaning against a pillar in the aisle so as not to
disturb other congregants who have been here all day. Though I recognize no one, though I won’t whisper "gut yontif” (good holiday) to a single soul, I will still be comforted by the familiarity of this ritual, surrounded by language and motion and music that reminds me of my purpose; the more formal annual chat with Moe, alev a sholem, may he rest in peace.
I look into the faces of strangers and locate a family that feels familiar. I imagine, among the squirming pitzels and the straining young adults, my nieces and nephews. I can see my older sister smiling down at her almost bas mitzvah-aged daughter, who follows along with the Hebrew. I can see my brother cuffing his son’s shoulder in the palm of his hand the way my father cuffed his son’s.
In the last minutes before the sun sets and my meter runs out, I say Kaddish for my father, I say it from memory — from standing next to him and from my 13 years’ practice. But I sneak out before the shofar is blown, before the crowd begins its exodus, cued by a whisper in my ear. “Let’s get out of here now, Susie. I’ll be damned if I’ll get stuck behind one of these alta kockers on the freeway..."