The Hagim We Just Had


If you were to board the #174 bus with me going into Jerusalem on any given day, you’d notice that, while most of the passengers are engrossed in staring at the tiny screens on their phones, you’d most likely see me clutching a primitive device called a newspaper, a life-long reading habit that I acquired from my father, of blessed memory. On different days of the week, he would come home from work with one of the New York City newspapers: The World-Telegram & Sun, The Journal-American, or the Sunday edition of the Daily News, whose comics I’d devour from Dick Tracy (on the front) to Gasoline Alley (on the back). One of my teachers (I believe it was in the 8th grade) introduced me to The New York Times, and that became my newspaper of choice, which I started buying on my way to high school. Most of these newspapers have gone the way of the dodo bird, but old habits die hard.

These days, I don’t have to wait for anyone to bring me a newspaper, nor do I have to head to the nearest newsstand or candy store. I simply open the front door of our apartment and retrieve the newspapers that should be there on our doorstep: The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz, which is bundled with the International Edition of The New York Times. (Our thoughtful neighbor usually leaves us a copy of Yisrael Hayom, but I leave that for Barbara to decipher with the help of the Hebrew-English dictionary on her phone.)

I always go through the stack to make sure we’ve gotten everything we’re supposed to. This task is made more complicated on Fridays by all the extras the newspapers include before Shabbat.  On the day in question, the Friday before Rosh Hashana, there were LOTS of supplements, but wait, where was the main section of Haaretz? I went through the stack three times to make sure I hadn’t missed it. No, it wasn’t there. Would I survive without it? Certainly, I would, but that’s not the point. We’ve paid for it, and we’re entitled. Nothing to do but call them up and complain. Just the main section of Haaretz; that’s all we’re missing. And the standard response: You’ll get it by the second delivery. It should arrive by noon.

Normally, when I have this conversation with a customer service representative for the newspaper, that’s as far as it goes. We get the missing newspaper later in the day, or we don’t. (It can go either way.) However, a few hours later, we got a frantic call from the folks at the delivery service, the ones who actually deposit the papers on my doorstep, which has never happened before. Why were we complaining about not getting Haaretz? You don’t get Haaretz. It dawned on Barbara, who took the call, what the problem was. No, we don’t get the telephone book-sized edition of the Hebrew Haaretz; we get the teeny English edition that comes folded inside The New York Times, all eight pages of it, sixteen on Friday, with great articles on archaeology, science, and the Israeli economy, along with its somewhat (?) slanted version of the news.

It took two phone calls to straighten out this conundrum. We were dealing with a typical Israeli response when faced with something they’re not familiar with. Ein davar c’ze. (There’s no such thing.) This outfit has been distributing the English edition, neatly tucked inside The Times for how long?, blissfully unaware of its existence. We’re not sure they ever understood what Barbara was trying to explain, but they wound up delivering a second copy of The Times, this time with Haaretz in its proper place.

Why am I mentioning this rather trivial episode? Usually when you’re on hold, waiting to speak with a representative on the other end, (as I was when I first called to complain) there’s some kind of innocuous music playing, probably to assure you that you haven’t been disconnected. This time, what was I hearing? For unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given; unto us a son is given a chorus from Händel’s Messiah, announcing the arrival of the infant Jesus! Music at its most glorious, but, shall we say, inappropriate for the moment, the Friday before Rosh Hashana, when all you want is to get them to send you your blasted newspaper. It would be akin to having to walk into The Sistine Chapel to refill your rav kav (transit card).

But my mind works in strange ways – as you may have already realized. Supposing, just supposing, I thought, I were to walk in our beit knesset on Rosh Hashana and, instead of what I would normally hear, some of the most lackluster music known to mankind, we were singing something that was GREAT – or at least good. It would be expecting too much for melodies on a par with Händel or J.S. Bach. (The folks sitting in our new pews would not be up to it anyway.) But go down a level. There were some mighty fine Jewish songwriters with style: George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser, Frederick Loewe, Jerry Bock. I’d settle for Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Even Naomi Shemer. I don’t mean use their songs. I don’t mean adapt ‘Summertime,’ or ‘Ol’ Man River,’ or sing Kol Nidre to the tune of ‘I’m Getting Married in the Morning.’ But a little bit of their class. Set a standard of excellence. Just don’t bore me into a semi-coma, especially if I’m expected to hang around for a while. Granted, one needn’t celebrate the birth of you-know-who right before Rosh Hashana; that should be a Never in Israel moment. But a little musical literacy never hurt.


Would it surprise you if I stated matter-of-factly that nobody followed my advice, and that the davening at Musar Avicha during the High Holidays this year would best be described as ‘same-old-same old?” What I have done in recent years, following the lead of my protégé, Ron (now officially a curmudgeon-in-training), is to depart early, leaving the rest of the service – all several hours of it – to those with more patience. On Day 2, I arrived home just in time to greet Barbara and Natania, who were on their way to hear the requisite forty shofar blasts at a nearby Yemenite shul, and then were on their way to Terem (emergency care). Our daughter had not been feeling well for a while, but now, whatever it was that was the matter was steadily going up her throat. On hearing this information, I immediately went into panic mode.

Years before, decades before, Barbara had an infection in her jaw caused by a careless dentist, which almost killed her. It too had gone up her throat. Calm down, Fred! Natania’s problem is probably not life-threatening (although definitely meriting immediate attention). Whatever it is, they can take care of it at Terem.

But consider the matter for a moment. Supposing this were a hundred years earlier (ten years before Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin), a routine infection or illness could easily turn into something life-threatening. WHO WILL LIVE AND WHO WILL DIE? When something simple could kill you, people probably paid more attention than they do today to these words we repeat on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  Maybe that’s why they were willing to spend all day in shul. I’LL BE GOOD!

Hours later, my wife and daughter returned from the clinic without having been seen. Too many emergencies with a skeleton staff of one doctor on duty. There were still a number of people ahead of them when they left, maybe an hour’s worth of waiting time. Natania was feeling a little better and needed to eat something. She would wait until nightfall and make an appointment on-line for the next day at her regular clinic.

I was reminded of a Shabbat in 1988 when we were staying with Zehavah (may her memory be a blessing) in her Jerusalem apartment. Natania, who was then one-year old, had contracted a fever, and, like most new parents, we were worried stiff. If I had had my druthers, I would have been off in search of medical attention ASAP. Our friend insisted that we wait until after Shabbat was over, whereupon she contacted a doctor and our daughter got the medical attention she needed. I never said anything to Zehava, but I always questioned why she felt obliged to wait. Now I think I understand. It may not have had anything to do with ‘desecrating Shabbat,’ which wouldn’t be a factor in case of medical need. Maybe she realized that there was no point trying to find a doctor available on Shabbat in Jerusalem (you might as well look for a ham sandwich in Mea Shearim) – unless someone was critically ill and had to be taken by ambulance to a hospital emergency room! Live and learn.


Start with my father and mother, Nathaniel and Lucille. And our sister, Marilyn June, who died in her 30’s. All my father’s siblings: Mae, the oldest, the only one born in the old country; brothers Harry, Abe, Jack (who died young), Addy, and Dan; Aunt Gussie, bless her. Their parents, Henry Cohen (who died a few months after we were born) and Fannie (Rubinstein) Cohen (after whom we’re named). Mae’s daughter Evelyn, who with her husband Murray, hosted me for Pesach many years. Dan’s son Henry, who had an attack of emphysema and died at the airport, waiting to board a plane bound for Ben-Gurion Airport for his first trip to Israel.

My mother’s parents, Samuel Jacobson (who died when we were four years old) and Masha Jacobson, the only grandparent I ever knew. (The two of them were first cousins and had the same surname.) My uncle George, who served in the U.S. Army in W.W. I.

There are more, too many to think about and remember all at once – the spouses, their children. Barbara’s mother. But it’s time for Yizkor here at Musar Avicha. There’s no way I could say a prayer for each one individually, so I just stop and think about as many of them as I can remember, what each one looked like, and maybe something about them – for those whom I got to know. And then……..

TIMES UP! The fortunate ones outside file back in and the service continues. BUT I’M NOT DONE YET. I did approach one of the people in charge a few years ago. How is it that everything else in the davening goes on as if we have all day, EXCEPT for Yizkor, for which you allocate a minute and a half? To be fair, things did improve somewhat after that, but I still felt rushed. This year, with new people at the helm, I made the same plaintive plea. I’m an old guy; I have lots of people to think about. Can you give me a little more time? I’m pleased to say my message got across. Not only was there more time allocated, but the fortunate ones were given the opportunity to go through a few tehillim while waiting in the shul lobby.

One thing nobody wanted to do was recreate the experience back in The States, when Yizkor becomes an extravaganza. The rabbi (or somebody) gives a speech, followed by the inevitable Appeal. In some places, I’m told they read out a list of the Departed, which, depending on the age of the shul and the congregants, might take a while. Nobody here wants to replicate that, Thank God.

I do remember one Yizkor that took place on Yom Kippur a long time ago when my father was still alive, and I was one of the fortunate few who could hang out outside. There I was, loitering on the steps of the shul (this was back in Queens, NYC), when a seriously middle-aged couple ambled their way towards me. ‘What time is Yizkor?’ they inquired. ‘Umm, I think it’s just about over. You missed it.’ I can still picture the look of disappointment on their faces as they turned around and went back the way they came. They had only one thing to do, one task, one mission: show up for Yizkor on Yom Kippur, the only time in the year when they would grace the shul with their presence. One thing, and they had failed miserably. Proving, perhaps, that the less one has to do, the harder it is to do it.


You have in your hand an old-fashioned prayer book – one with commentary in English – and you open it to the section with various miscellaneous blessings. Many of them are for performing mitzvot, like washing your hands at the appropriate times. Or when something good happens, like seeing a rainbow or a wise person. But there’s one bracha that always intrigued me, recited when you see 600,000 Jews in one place. (Some siddurim specify only in Israel; others don’t say, so probably anywhere.)

There are two obvious questions, genuine elephants in the room. First of all, we’re ‘not supposed’ to go around counting other Jews. Even so, how would you get 600,000 Jews to stand still long enough to be counted? (We’re up to 599,973. Well, keep counting!)  If there was ever a blessing I would never have a reason to use, this one would be it. However…..

It was Tuesday, the first intermediate day of Sukkot, and I was wending my way through the ‘closed’ part of the shuk, in search of a few odds and ends. There in front, behind, and around me on this narrow thoroughfare must have been AT LEAST 600,000 people, most of whom were probably Jewish. Note to self: never, ever, go to the shuk when school is not in session and especially when it’s during the holidays. Not only are there the usual collection of seniors pushing their bubbe-carts at a snail-like pace, now you have the parents with their strollers. And for every adult present, there are at least two children (God love ‘em), because when there’s no school, what do you do with the kids? Take them to the shuk. Why not?

Worm your way through, find the few things I need, and head across the street to my place of refuge, Power Coffeeworks. Oh no! Standing in front of the entrance, milling around, impeding my progress, was a throng of tourists with some tour guide in charge. Maybe not 600,000 of them; only 100,000 – or so it seemed. OUT OF MY WAY; COMING THROUGH; MAN IN SEARCH OF A COLD BREW!



If I show up at my hangout, and it’s not Thursday, my normal day, I have some explaining to do. I know it’s not Thursday, but there’s a reason… The Levines were expected at our doorstep the next day, and we wanted to spend as much time together as possible. Normally, we would find some opportunity to visit a museum or two, but…. see above for why not. Once they had arrived, we would have dinner with friends Carol and Moshe in their sukkah. Thursday, we headed to Pyup for their annual buy-three-bottles-and-get-one-free sale on all their considerable stock of wine. The rest of the day, I spent cooking, so there would be time for the four of us to head out to Kibbutz Tzora on Friday. The Levines were eagerly anticipating participating in the folk music sing-along there, held twice a year on the Friday of chol hamoed. That would start at 11ish, giving us time to schedule a trip at 10AM to the Visitors Center of the Tzora Winery, a short distance away, a place I wanted very much to-revisit. It had been several years since the four of us had been there, and the few bottles of their wine I had squirreled away were no more. We found four other folks in a group sitting at the table across from us, a ‘captive audience’ for Barbara and Richard to expound on all things wine related. Pick up a few bottles of the latest vintages, and then off to the sing-along.

This kind of event may not be your cup of tea, and, to be honest, not the highlight of my week. But, what the heck, we’re here.  Twenty-five or so retirement age (or close to it) folkies gathered to sing together. The couple who organizes the event has compiled a several page song sheet with the words to maybe forty folk music type songs (including some by the Beatles). The idea is to go around the room; each person gets to select a favorite song from the list and everyone sings together, accompanied by a guitar. I figured that they would call on me sooner or later, so I’d better peruse the sheets to see if there is anything that suits my fancy. There’s one I know and like: “You Are My Sunshine,” associated with a former governor of Louisiana, Jimmy Davis, and still the state song.

They kept going around the room, coming closer and closer to where the four of us were sitting. I hope nobody ‘steals’ my song. I was concerned about that and also how they would sing it. There was only one way I could make certain it was done right: take charge. It turned out that somebody else had selected the song, but very early when hardly anybody was there. It was OK if I did it again.

How often these days do I get to employ my modest talent and sing a solo? How often do I get a chance to sing at all, now that I’ve retired from Encore! I walked over to the guitarist and sang him the first few lines. This is how it’s to be done. And then I stood up and belted it out, beginning with:

The other night dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms
But when I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cried

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are gray
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away

followed by the two other verses, and then I sat down. Whereupon, Richard announced, ‘He’s a ringer.’

I can’t remember what the other three members of our party chose for their selections, but it must have been something. When everyone there had taken a turn, we took a lunch break and then hurried back to Ma’ale Adumim to get ready for Shabbat. We had some serious business ahead of us.

You may think the time we spend with The Levines is all fun and games with generous dollops of witty repartee. If so, you’d be wrong! We were at the final stages of Barbara Levine’s annual Israeli rosé survey, and we had several more bottles to evaluate, which would bring the total up to about forty different wines. Not an easy task, especially since my Barbara is not an aficionado of this particular type of wine, leaving the heavy lifting to the rest of us. We had no choice: either drink or swim. We drank.

And then Shabbat was over. The Levines headed north to their mountaintop. We had one more day of Hag, and then we were off bright and early Tues. morning on the ‘AACI’s Kosher Mediterranean & Adriatic Seas 12 Night Cruise.’ You will be told about our adventures, but you’ll need to patient. Right now, I gotta see a professor about a Wikipedia article. So hold your horses.


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