In the Suburbs / Treasuring a special high holy day memory of my dad and me

As the High Holy Days began yesterday, and I continue to mourn my dad’s passing in July, I remembered the closeness I felt to my father, particularly during this time of year. One of my favorite memories was of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the times I shared the last service of the day, Niilah, with my dad. Neilah is when the gates of Heaven begin to close and another year begins.

During my teenage and college years, I sat next to my dad in Oliff Auditorium at Congregation B’nai Zion in Chicago during that last service and we ended the holiday together. Mom had already gone home to prepare for our breaking the fast meal and it was just dad and me. I liked that and will always treasure that memory.

Spending that time together helped me forge a long-lasting connection with my dad, who always seemed more relaxed during these holidays. He was always a man of few words, but he seemed more animated and talkative as we sat together in services.

I particularly liked it when Yom Kippur came in late September or early October and the nights were cool. Once the Neilah service ended and the Shofar (ram’s horn) was sounded to officially end the holiday, dad and I walked out into the brisk night air to greet fellow congregants, catch up on their lives and head home for our holiday feast.

Back home, dad was in his element, greeting family and friends — mom invited at least 20 for breaking the fast — and dad was laughing throughout the evening at stories. His raucous laughter was infectious — almost a shriek at times.

The meal was heavy. Mom usually made a brisket, along with chicken, chopped liver and a slew of desserts.

No one left hungry.

After college, during the first six years Mari-ann and I were married, we sometimes joined dad for the Neilah service. Other times, Mari-ann didn’t stay and went back to mom and dad’s to help out with breaking the fast. Those times were like old times and I ended the service with dad.

I really missed those High Holy Days together when we moved to Florida in the early ’70s. Mari-ann and I found a fledgling synagogue in Coral Springs, but our services were held in a community hall at the Westinghouse welcome center and were generally over by 5:30 p.m. The cold night air I remembered from Chicago became damp, muggy air and time spent with dad became a quick phone call to mom and dad after the holiday.

Mari-ann and I missed the noise and dad’s raucous laughter, but we usually called when there were plenty of people still at the house in Chicago. Those breaking fast dinners eventually ended when mom and dad sold the house and moved to downtown Chicago. By then, my grandparents were gone along with others in the family.

I concluded during all the moving around we did before settling in Connecticut that there simply wasn’t a congregation like B’nai Zion. But when we moved to Fairfield and joined B’nai Israel, I was able to recapture that special experience I had shared with my dad at the end of the Yom Kippur service, especially on those brisk nights in late September or early October. Joining that congregation was like coming home.

In the 35 years we’ve lived in Connecticut, I’ve rarely missed a Neilah service and have also been attending Yizkor (the memorial service) just before the closing service. And over the years, during our regular holiday call with my parents, I’ve asked dad whether he made Neilah. The answer was always a resounding yes.

But this Yom Kippur will be different. After mom passed away in 2012, we continued to check in with dad on the holiday. By then, B’nai Zion was a distant memory and dad actually belonged to another synagogue, Kol Emeth, in Skokie, Ill. How I missed those holidays in Oliff Auditorium.

Sadly, dad’s seat will be vacant this year. When we saw him in July, just before he died, we barely spoke about the High Holy Days. He certainly planned to go, but life had other plans and now he’s gone.

For me, Yizkor and Neilah will be particularly empty and sad this year. But if the night is brisk when services end, I’ll know that dad was there to bring me his warm sense of humor and companionship as he had so often on the Day of Atonement when I was growing up.

L’shanah Tovah, dad. I know you have been inscribed in the book of life for eternity.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday.

He can be reached at