My recollections of childhood High Holy Days in Brooklyn are suffused with images of my parents’ cerebral palsy disability, and how that impacted our celebration of the New Year. Although I attended an Orthodox day school, we were not regular Shabbat shul-goers. On Rosh HaShanah, however, when virtually our entire neighborhood attended services, my father and I did as well, and on Yom Kippur my mother joined us.
We prayed at a small, perennially cash-strapped Conservadox congregation — mostly lower- and middle-income families and senior citizens. Each year a chazzan was hired to lead holiday services; as he droned on in his European accent, people would quietly chat among themselves, periodically being hushed by the rabbi, joining in song when they recognized familiar words or tunes.
My parents were an institution in our neighborhood, having lived there for decades; it seemed like everyone knew them in our little “shtetl.” So, although the synagogue was completely inaccessible for people with disabilities, on the major holidays a group of men volunteered to help my parents make it up the long flight of stairs at the building entrance. We and our neighbors gathered in a room long on functionality and modest in adornment, which served as the shul’s social hall the rest of the year.
Even as a small child, I knew that in holding my father’s machzor I was performing a mitzvah of a higher order. To help another Jew access prayer, allowing him to speak to God in the way his father and grandfather did before him, was special.
What might have been a dreary religious obligation was for me a very powerful experience. My father was unable to use his hands. Therefore, as a young child I began holding his machzor (holiday prayer book) for him when we were at shul. I had to concentrate on holding the prayer book high enough so that my father could easily see the words. I prayed faster than he did; I would wait at the end of each page until my father was done and he murmured, “turn.” I remember the parts of the service that especially moved him, particularly the sentence from the Yom Kippur liturgy, “Is Ephraim not my beloved son?” which would bring him to the verge of tears. I recall reading the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah and Haftorah portions with him — Jonah and the whale, sin, faith and redemption. And I remember the exact page number in the Birnbaum machzor on which the Ne’ilah service ended, when we all rushed the exits and headed home to eat: 1,017.
Those long hours next to my father were quiet, peaceful shared moments in our otherwise challenging family life. I loved the familiar repetition and timeless tradition, and I was simultaneously intrigued and embarrassed by my father’s deep kavanah (intentional, focused worship). How profound that our liturgy reminds us once a year that indeed we are like material in the hands of our Creator, “k’chomer b’yad ha’yotzer.” Only as an adult do I realize the power of a profoundly disabled man uttering these words with his entire heart and soul, an existential proclamation that we are all humble before the vagaries of life’s Ultimate Power, however we perceive it.
Even as a small child, I knew that in holding my father’s machzor I was performing a mitzvah of a higher order. To help another Jew access prayer, allowing him to speak to God in the way his father and grandfather did before him, was special. When I became a wife and mother, I happily shared the experience with my husband and three sons.
Sadly, this year we will no longer have this extraordinary z’chut (privilege), as my father passed away in February at the age of 85. I know I will often feel bereft at synagogue over the next month, as my heart and mind inexorably pull me back to that humble sanctuary in Sheepshead Bay and to the aching absence of my most powerful davening companion and muse.
We are blessed in our larger community to have many “machzor holders”: individuals who work tirelessly to make Jewish houses of worship, schools and other institutions more accessible and open to people with disabilities. Too often it is a frustrating exercise — our community still has a long way to go in treating disabled Jews as equal, visible, proud members of our people. I am so grateful to those whose dedication to this mission never flags: every success achieved helps one more adult like my father to pray, one more child to learn Jewish tradition, and one more congregation learn how to treat disabled people with respect and dignity. It is holy work, as surely as if these people were holding a machzor for each and every disabled person in our midst.
May we all find meaningful opportunities in the New Year to be “machzor holders” ourselves, in whatever way we can.