My recollections of childhood High Holidays 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. My parents were physically exhausted from the work week and there was a long flight of stairs at our synagogue that they could not climb without assistance. On Rosh Hashanah, however, when virtually our entire neighborhood came out to synagogue for their twice-a-year communal prayers, my father and I did attend services, and on Yom Kippur my mother joined us.
We belonged to a small, nondescript, perennially cash-strapped Conservadox congregation — mostly lower and middle-income families and senior citizens. My parents were an institution in our neighborhood, having lived there for decades; everyone knew and accepted them, and there was always someone to help them climb up and down the entrance stairs before and after services. As the chazzan with the strong Yiddish accent droned on, people would talk quietly among themselves, periodically being hushed by the rabbi and chiming in to pray whenever they recognized a tune.
Spirituality comes in strange packages, in odd moments and places. What many might imagine to have been a dreary religious obligation was in fact for me a highly emotional, touching experience.
From birth, my father has been unable to use his hands due to his cerebral palsy. Therefore, as soon as I was old enough, I began holding my father’s machzor for him when we were at shul on the High Holidays. I was short — I would have to concentrate on holding the prayer book high enough so that my father could see the words when we stood. I prayed faster than my father 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 always make him choke up. I recall reading the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah and Haftorah portions with him — Jonah and the whale, sin, faith and redemption. And I can remember the exact page number in the Birnbaum siddur on which the Ne’ilah service ended, when we could all rush the exits and head home to eat: page 1017.
I didn’t spend much time hanging out with the other kids in the shul hallways and on the sidewalk in front of the building, and I didn’t mind; I knew time I spent outside the sanctuary was time my father was without a machzor to pray from.
Those long hours in shul next to my father were quiet, peaceful shared moments in our otherwise challenging family life. I loved it all — the familiar repetition, the deep emotions the liturgy evoked in my father. How wonderful that our calendar compels us once a year to remember that indeed, we are like material in the hands of our Creator, “k’chomer b’yad ha’yotzer.” My father would quietly sob during this prayer. Only now 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 for him I was performing a mitzvah of a higher order. To help another Jew access prayer, to allow him to speak to God in the way his tradition tells him to, in the way his father and grandfather did before him, was special.
It has been years since my father and I have been able to spend the High Holidays together. I married, moved to Maryland and had three children. It became too hard to travel to Brooklyn for the holidays with my small boys, and in any case, my parents’ health and physical condition deteriorated to the point that they could no longer climb the steps to their shul, even with assistance.
This summer my parents left their beloved neighborhood, against their will. After a long struggle with New York’s Medicaid system regarding my parents’ home care benefits, I was told that the State would no longer provide aid for them in their own residence, and that they would need to move to a nursing home. In July, they left their apartment of nearly 40 years and became residents of the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington.
In giving up their home, their independence, and everything they knew and that was dear to them, my parents suffered an incalculable loss. However, the one thing they regained was their ability to be part of a Jewish community. My father has quickly become a regular at the Home’s Shabbat services and at weekly Torah study sessions. And I am looking forward to reclaiming my place as the holder of my father’s machzor, and perhaps sharing this powerful, life-affirming mitzvah with my sons.
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 the work is discouraging and frustrating —- our community has such a long way to go in treating disabled Jews as equal, visible, proud members of our people. As we approach these High Holidays, please know that every success you achieve helps one more adult to pray, one more child to learn Jewish tradition and become a part of the Jewish people, and one more congregation to learn how to treat disabled people with respect and dignity. You are engaged in holy work, as surely as if you were holding a machzor for each and every disabled person in our midst.
May you, and may we all, be inscribed for a year of health, peace, and blessings of greater awareness, openness and spiritual growth.
Guila Franklin Siegel is a guest blogger for Matan. An attorney by training, she worked for over a decade in the areas of Jewish social change and Jewish philanthropy. She lives in the Washington D.C. area.