My Day of Awe: Dressing the Torah for the High Holy Days

Torah scroll open on a golden background

All my life, the turning of the year has seemed to be something that would sneak up on me. Existing outside of everyday, it was beyond the reality that shaped my life, a pause imposed on the “real” world. One day I’d be playing with other kids on the jungle gym, or studying for an exam, or working on a story deadline. Then suddenly, the new year would appear on the calendar, and the clock reset to the beginning. Incrementally, life changed over time, almost unnoticed, unmarked except by momentous highlights: weddings and births, bar/bat mitzvahs and anniversaries, deadlines and book launches, and deaths.

This year is different.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy Days, time seems to be slowing down, giving me the luxury to wonder and wander, touching places in my mind and heart that I haven’t visited before.

That isn’t to say that deadlines aren’t looming, laying on the pressure professionally. Nor is the world any less hectic or demanding. But something in me was broken this past year of isolation and fear. Broken then healed, broken and healed… over and over again. In some ways, I feel like a piece of Kintsugi, a Japanese work of art created by using gold dust to rejoin the pieces of something that’s been damaged, creating beauty out of pain. But instead of gold, it’s light and lightness that is shining through the cracks in my universe. Shining on the stories within me, because stories are the gold, the light that keeps me together, and creates a new me with each character born and plot woven.

The story that’s reshaping me right now, and currently putting me in a deeply contemplative mindset, is a novel that I’m only just beginning to create, and which will absorb me for the next few years. Women of a New Moon takes place in Black Bear, PA, the same fictional Poconos village that is the setting for my novel Jo Joe, and Daniel’s novella Honor. Here’s the current (and evolving) description of Women of a New Moon:

When neo-Nazis torch a small-town synagogue, six women seek refuge in the study of biblical women (such as Eve and Lilith, Sarah and Hagar, Miriam, etc.). Amid new threats of violence, the modern and ancient stories of pain, anger, and broken dreams converge and clash, as each woman struggles to find a path toward hope.

I’ve known for some time that a key scene of Women of a New Moon would have the six women (including an agnostic and a Christian) dressing the Torah in preparation for the High Holy Days. The thing is I’ve never been religious. In fact, I’ve never even held a Torah, let alone helped to dress it. So, I asked our rabbi, Peg Kershenbaum, if I could help with changing the garments of Temple B’nai Harim’s Torahs from their usual deep red velvet to the white cloaks worn only for the Days of Awe (the High Holy Days).

Awe. It’s a word that has such inherent power, but which has become devalued by overuse. Today, the word’s full potency descended on me, seeping into my marrow, and like my stories, it changed me in ways I haven’t yet fully processed.

I drove through a steady rain on my way to meet Rabbi Peg and my friend Ellen Kagan at our small Poconos synagogue. Hurricane Henri was raging offshore, headed for New England, dropping periodic torrents of rain even here hundreds of miles from the storm’s path. But it softened to a light drizzle in the temple parking lot, a cool refreshing sprinkle on my face and hands.

Inside, we went about our business, matter-of-factly, with no ritual, no sacred preparation. We were dressed informally. (For me that meant a pair of “good” jeans and a “nice” blouse.) While Ellen replaced the year-round gold cloths on the bema and other pulpit tables with white damask, I removed the red velvet cloaks from our two Torahs.

How commonplace it felt. All around the globe in synagogues where other languages are spoken, other traditions celebrated, Jews were fulfilling the same annual duty, repeating what has been done before through the ages by so many and will be done again for years and hopefully millennia to come. And in that commonplace matter-of-fact task, I found a quiet almost sacred connection to the women and men who came before me, who helped to make me who I am, and those who will come after.

I didn’t experience anything like Rabbi Peg’s first touch of the Torah’s Eitz Chayim (the wooden handles around which the parchment is wound). For Peg, it was a shock of familiarity, a welcoming home, a “Hello!” to Rabbi Peg from “her”, from the Torah. (All nouns in Hebrew are gendered, and Torah is female, which feels very appropriate on so many levels.)

But then Rabbi Peg’s relationship with the Torah is both scholarly and spiritual. My feeling was more akin to that of a storied distant relative who has been always on the periphery of my mind, but has been edging closer recently, as we have begun to get to know each other, slowly, tentatively. And today, we’ve finally met face to face. As in a first meeting with a childhood friend of my great-grandmother, who may have old-fashioned sensibilities and rules of etiquette, I was nervous lest I make a mistake, perhaps overstep some unspoken boundaries or, with an incautious sudden movement, physically wound her fragile flesh. Rabbi Peg assured me that the Torah is far more hearty than I imagined, a survivor. (But then, so were my great-grandmother’s friends.)

The complete Torah is read every year, another portion each week, starting with Genesis on Rosh Hashanah. So, to prepare for the Rosh Hashanah service, Rabbi Peg had to rewind the scroll from the very end in Deuteronomy back to the very beginning.

Placing the Torah on a table, Rabbi Peg gripped the wooden handles firmly, and began the back-and-forth rhythm of opening and closing the scroll, rolling the parchment from one side to the other. I placed my hands on the other end of the wooden spindles, as gently as a fallen leaf, not wanting to interfere but aching to fully experience this ancient process. My body soon began to sway, mirroring Rabbi Peg’s sure, swift movements. I sensed in my sinews that for her rolling the Torah has become instinctual, like a dance with a partner who knows you so well that no one needs to lead.

As the text rolled along, Rabbi Peg greeted passages as they unwound into view and then disappeared.

“There’s the ten commandments.”

“Ah, the Song of the Sea, notice how the words on either side is like the Sea of Reeds parting to let the Israelites pass through, carried by words and by song.”

Though I don’t read Hebrew, I know the stories for they are my ancestors, foundation tales not only of my people, but for a wide breadth of people who may be strangers to me and mine. Yet we’re all connected, through the stories of the Torah. And yes, they are a root source of all the stories I’ve ever written or imagined or which are brewing somewhere in my subconscious.

The one side of the Torah became heavier and heavier. And like a child standing on her father’s feet to learn how to dance, my hands began to move almost of their own volition, not quite helping Rabbi Peg, but not being passive either. Rolling and unrolling.

Finally, with a sigh of pleasure, Rabbi Peg greeted the very beginning. “Ah, hello, Bereshit.”

She closed the Torah scroll, lifted it off the table and beckoned me to her side. Then with no preliminary other than the instruction to support it on the bottom and hold it as straight as possible, she placed it into my arms. I then carried it back to the bema.

It was a comforting weight. Anchoring me, so that my steps were sure, solid. And yet, while holding it, I felt that I became larger and lighter, spreading out from this place and this time, reaching beyond what I was when I had walked alone with nothing to carry on my shoulder or soul.

I now have a few weeks until we gather in a hybrid Rosh Hashanah service – some of us in person in our small temple, others safely tucked away on Zoom. Unlike other years, this period before the turning of the calendar will be a gradual lead-up, a gentle slope carrying me forward into the unknowable future. I’ll be writing, weaving the stories my characters whisper to me, wondering who I will be once they are finished with me. And I’ll be listening carefully for the echo of words in an ancient language I don’t really understand as they roll and unroll about my heart, healing the brokenness with a golden light.


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