Slight chill in air adds to warmth of High Holy Days
At sundown last Sunday evening, the beginning of the 10 days of Awe that represent our Jewish High Holy Days, there was a slight chill in the air. But I like that the holidays fall a bit later this year on our 13-month Judaic calendar and the temperature is a bit cooler.
I like this later time for the holidays best, because I have fond memories of childhood when I attended services in early October with my late father. On the night of Yom Kippur, if the weather was particularly cool after sundown, we would walk home briskly, knowing fall was definitely in the air.
In Chicago, when I attended services with my parents, few congregations were air conditioned and light wool suits for men were more the exception than the rule if the holidays were in September. So we always hoped for cooler days. Our conservative synagogue in Chicago was not air conditioned until the early 1960s, and, fortunately, we worshipped in a lower level community hall. Nevertheless, on warmer high holy day mornings I often felt like a packed sardine among nearly 700 congregants and the services were generally some 3-plus hours.
My childhood memories of our religious services were among my fondest and the prayers had the a great deal of meaning as I was growing up in my religion. I loved learning the traditional melodies and participating in the rituals of the High Holy Days.
During the services, I was always mesmerized by the beautiful voices of our synagogue choirs—there were always two during the High Holy Days -one in the main sanctuary where my grandparents had seats and one for our family downstairs. The main choir was directed by a wonderful man, Hyman Resnick, and when I was about 14, I asked to audition for the choir and was accepted. The other High Holiday choir was always directed by one of Mr. Resnick’s colleagues, but I sang in the main choir.
Once I donned my white choir robe I knew I had been given a special privilege and was now part of the entire High Holy Day ritual along with every service. Initially, I had to learn tons of holiday music and blend in with the other tenors in the choir. But each successive year became easier unless Conductor Resnick developed a new composition for us to include.
Conductor Resnick was alway very patient and helped me along at all of our rehearsals before and during the 10 days before Yom Kippur. His goal was always precision and perfection and the choirs came through. I’ve never forgotten the opportunity he gave me.
The real beauty of being part of the choir was the new appreciation I developed for the melodies in each of the services and especially the Kol Nidre (night before Yom Kippur) prayer and the prayers at the end of Yom Kippur during the memorial service and the closing service - Ni’ilah. One of my ongoing favorites was Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father Our King) .
Unlike reform or reconstructionist congregations, we had no organ or other instruments in our conservative congregation, so the choir set the musical tone and members of the congregation loved to sing along with many of the traditional melodies. I enjoyed giving something back to the congregation rather than just attending services and members of the choir always treated me with respect.
Experiencing Mr. Resnick’s genius for nearly four years was one of my most beautiful High Holiday memories. And I developed a whole new appreciation of the choral experience.
Sadly, when I went away to college, it wasn’t possible to return to the choir every year, but Conductor Resnick always knew I was out in the congregation and gave me a smile when he could.
I still find the haunting melodies of Kol Nidre and Avinu Malkeinu among my favorites whenever I can attend a service and I always remember my choral experience as I participate with other members of the congregation. We don’t officially belong, but I never miss the memorial service and the N’ilah service.
This year, whether the weather is warm or cold on Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur, my wife and I will be watching services on a special broadcast through our favorite Central Synagogue in New York. The congregation has a television following of nearly 3,000 and we can watch High Holy Day services from our family room and appreciate the beauty of the holiday.
Nevertheless, I hope there will be a chill in the air on Yom Kippur evening when N’ilah services at our old synagogue end and my wife and I join our wonderful friends Howard and Eden for their spectacular breaking the fast dinner. Their personal warmth on a chillier night always makes these holidays so special and always makes us feel so much like we’re a part of their extended family.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.