Coming to Terms,continued


If the Rosh Hashanah sermon is only a B, he will have to make it up on Yom Kippur. After all, the Kol Nidre sermon is the one that really matters, the one that is supposed to change lives.

Changing lives is the theme of the entire High Holiday season. Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of the new year and its possibilities; it signals the beginning of a period of taking emotional, personal, and theological inventory. The major metaphor of the High Holidays, the “Book of Life”—which says who will live and who will die in the coming year—is merely opened on Rosh Hashanah. There are still 10 “days of awe” before one’s fate is actually inscribed. Yom Kippur, a day of atonement, solemn fasting, introspection and immersion in past misdeeds, is when the book is closed for the year. It’s the April 15th of Judaism. And, like a tax day for the soul, it is spent doing last-second calculations of self-worth, all without the benefit of food or water.

From the first, Wolpe is mesmerizing. This is the sermon he spent all summer writing, and an entire career imagining. He begins by talking about the building we’re sitting in, and how he chose the words that would serve as its theme: shamor and zachor, observe and remember, from the Fourth Commandment. The words, inscribed on the Ark curtains behind him, represent the “maaahr-velous blend” that has defined Har Zion, a congregation that has always seen itself as part of history but still translates that remembrance into religious action.

On Yom Kippur, congregants are supposed to stay in synagogue all day, fasting and praying. Yet at about 12:30 p.m., when the Yizkor service is announced, half the congregation gets up and walks out. Yizkor is the memorial prayer for the dead, and many leave because of an old Jewish superstition that it is bad luck to sit through Yizkor if you haven’t lost both parents. Others leave because it’s a good excuse to cut out after two or three hours of prayer. Then, when Yizkor is over there’s often another stampede to the exits, leaving only a few hundred people dotting the 3,000 seats.

Wolpe confesses that he has always secretly desired to reschedule Yizkor for six o’clock in the evening so nobody would leave. “I have endured difficult moments in the rabbinate,” he says, “by imaging the looks of bewilderment and panic that would spread over the faces of the congregation … vainly waiting through the strange machinations of an aging rabbi: ‘Did he forget? Should we send an usher? Why doesn’t the president say something to him?’”

As he speaks, his head moves slowly back and forth, as if driven by an oscillating mechanism beneath his tallis. In this owlish way, he gives the impression of making eye contact with every congregant.

Next he flies off to Barcelona. Rabbi and his wife Elaine recently visited there, and the city, he says, “quickly became one of our favorites.” One of the unexpected delights of Barcelona, he recounts, was the Picasso museum—unexpected because he has never been a “devotee of Picasso,” and the art-history student in him requires him to say so. But this museum included only Picasso’s very early work—his portraits of family and friends, planning cartoons and studies for what was to come—as well as a series of copperplate prints he had done near the end of his life. The prints recalled the influences in his career, a tribute to his visual masters. “The Germans, as always, have a word for it,” says Wolpe, and the word vergangheitzbewattigung rolls off his tongue as if it comes up in conversation often.

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Copyright 2002 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 9/02/02