April 19, 2024
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Yom Kippur: Stand By Your Dad

Jonathan Segal had been sitting next to his father in shul on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for as long as he could remember. When he was a young boy, he would attend Congregation Sha’arei Torah’s youth services on most of the Shabbatot and holidays of the year, so he could hang out with his friends, but on the High Holy Days he was right by his father’s side. After he became a bar mitzvah, Jonathan started to go to another minyan in the shul, but he always returned to the main service and his father when Tishrei came around. They sat in the same seats every year, just to the left of the bimah. His father Aaron always joked that if they ever sat anywhere else, God would say, “Hey, where’s the Segals?”

After Jonathan married Chavi, they still travelled from Manhattan every year to be in West Orange with his parents on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Aaron would drive all the way into the city, braving the traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway to pick them up, since the younger Segals didn’t have a car. Then he would drive them back in to the Upper West Side after havdalah. Jonathan’s mother Ruth had the whole holiday prepared before they got there; the table was set, the beds were all made, and all the elaborate Yom Tov meals were prepared. All Jonathan and Chavi had to do was show up.

When Jonathan’s son Jonah became old enough to sit for davening, Aaron bought him a seat, too. Jonah would drift in and out of the sanctuary, like Jonathan did as a child, hiding in the coat room or running around the social hall when he got bored, but he stayed in for the service as much as he could.

As the years passed, it became hard for the senior Segals to host for the Yamim Noraim. Aaron developed trouble walking, and he got tired easily. Ruth struggled with the elaborate preparations (it’s hard to lift a 25-pound turkey when you have arthritis). Eventually it was decided that it would be easier if the High Holies were celebrated at Jonathan and Chavi’s.

By then Jonathan and Chavi had purchased a small house in Livingston, just a few miles from his parents. It was a little snug to fit everyone, but they knew they would find a way. Ruth and Aaron were gracious guests and acted like their son’s small split level house was the Taj Mahal. Chavi cooked up a storm, and Ruth oohed and aahed over every dish she prepared.

It just wasn’t the same for Aaron, davening in another shul for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for the first time in over 50 years. He had become accustomed to the chazanim at Sha’arei Torah and their established tunes for various tefillot, and it was hard to adjust to anything new. Still, he tried to make the best of it.

Jonathan stood between his father and his son during Yom Kippur davening that year, proud to be hosting his parents for the first time and glad that they were all still together for the holiday. Over the last few years he had assumed the role of helper for his father, assisting him with his tallit when it fell off his shoulder, then helping him stand and sit for parts of the service when it became necessary. Eventually, Aaron couldn’t manage the walk to shul himself, so Jonathan pushed him in a wheelchair. But despite the effort, it felt good to have his father there. Three generations of Segals sat together in prayer. Jonathan just hoped God could find them in their new seats.

It was Musaf, and the chazan was singing Unetaneh Tokef, one of the most intense prayers of the Yom Kippur service. Jonathan looked down into his machzor and read the words.

Berosh Hashana yikateivun

Uveyom Tsom Kippur yechateimun.

On Rosh Hashana will be inscribed

And on Yom Kippur will be sealed.

Kama ya’avrun vekama yibareyun

How many will pass from the world, and how many will be created.

Mi yichyeh umi yamut

Who will live and who will die.

Positioned between his father and his son in the sanctuary filled with congregants in hushed silence, Jonathan could feel the tears well up in his eyes. This prayer always did that to him.

Jonathan looked out across the shul and watched Marty Greenberg’s son Reuven playing with action figures under his father’s seat. Wasn’t it just yesterday that it was him playing in shul, hiding a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his father’s tallit bag so he could break his fast as soon as his dad gave the O.K.?

Jonathan felt his tallit slip from his shoulder, but before he could replace it, Jonah had put it back in its place.

Jonathan smiled.

Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics. He is author of the parsha blog maggidofbergenfield.com.

By Larry Stiefel

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