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rosh hashanah

How My Father, the Cantor, Taught Me to Jump

avery

As a child, one of my favorite parts of High Holiday services was when the cantor, my dad, of blessed memory, fell kor’eem—in lay terms, “bowed before God”—during a prayer called the Aleinu Gadol that occurs during the morning service on Rosh Hashanah. Maybe it was because reaching that point in our worship meant that we were getting close to the end of the service. Not that, as a youngster, I was paying any attention to how long I had been sitting there, trying to stay quiet and still…

Or maybe, and this is what I like to think, it was because the moment was so suspenseful. Instead of just bending at the knee when he sang, “Vaanacnhu kor’eem u’meeshtachavim u’modim”—which means, “We bend and bow and give thanks before God”—my dad would bend and bow so deeply that his forehead actually touched the floor. He was, it bears noting, pretty short, anyway. But doing this, he would entirely disappear from my and the congregation’s view, hidden by the podium behind him.

READ: On Rosh Hashanah, Remembering the Friend Who Taught Me What Being Jewish Is Really About

At this time in the service, congregants were designated to stand on either side of him—like sentinels. They stood there and watched, waiting for the moment at which they were to help him up from his impossibly crouched, bent position. What if, as the ancient rabbis of the Talmud worried might happen to the high priest in the Temple of old, his energy waned and he faltered and could not rise from the floor? This was high drama, befitting such a holy moment and holy day. The congregation held its collective breath.

Every year, I was on the edge of my seat, just waiting to see what would happen next.

cantor

And then—at the very moment that my dad chanted, “Lifnei melech, malchei hamlachim…hakadosh Baruch Hu”—meaning, “Before the King, King of kings, the blessed holy God”—he would quite literally spring up by himself, as if an electric current had levitated him. Before his sentinels could even try to lay a hand on him, my father rose what seemed like a foot off the ground! In that moment his whole being seemed to say, “We can all get closer to God. We can all jump just a little bit higher. We all have hidden within us a strength that we hardly know is there.”

READ: Allowing Myself to Sit After My Father’s Death

The liturgy on these holy days is peppered with special little changes from what we are otherwise familiar with. One change is that in every Kaddish during this period of repentance and renewal, instead of saying “l’eilah”—which means “higher,” we say, “l’eilah u’l’eilah”—“higher and higher.” My dad showed me how to make that real.

As we move through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, may we all find small ways to jump—at least in our hearts and minds—just a little bit higher—l’eilah u’leilah—to get closer to God or to our own understanding of what we can accomplish for ourselves and for others.

As for me, on the High Holidays, I’ll always have my father to thank for teaching me how to jump a little higher.

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