A Yom Kippur story


Rob this morning that candlelighting was at 5:56? They ought to be sitting down in five minutes if they’re to do justice to the five-course holiday meal she’s prepared. Perhaps she forgot to mention candlelighting altogether. She’s been so careful to avoid a repeat of last year’s Yom Kippur battle with Rob that she may not have said anything at all.

Julia peers inside the soup pot, skimming golden islets of fat from the bubbling brew. She spears a drumstick with a knife. The meat flakes off easily. She blows on the morsel at the tip of the knife, pops it in her mouth. It tastes like — chicken. What had she expected? And what had possessed her, in the car yesterday, to swerve to the side of the road so abruptly that the cab behind her nearly hit her? She had certainly passed KOVACS’S KOSHER (“Marinated Spare Ribs”, “B-B-Q Chickens”) hundreds of times before without the impulse to stop.

Inside the shop, she pretended not to understand as Mr. and Mrs. Kovacs exchanged bursts of rapid Hungarian with each other. “Another one that gets religion before Yom Kippur, a once-a-year Jew’,’ said the butcher.

“That makes seven in a row I’ve never seen before!’ Mrs. Kovacs made change. “Chag sameach” she smiled at Julia, baring a gold crown.

“Koszonom szeperi”, said Julia, in her best Hungarian. Thank you.

The doorbell rings and Julia feels relief suffuse through her. Rob is home in time. There will be no repeat of last year’s histrionics, of a drama she well recalls though still does not fully understand:

“But what difference does it make if we eat five minutes later?” Rob, harried yet insouciant, had arrived at the last minute when Julia stood already poised by her grandmother’s silver candlesticks. The table had been cleared of food. Rob had tried to sound reasonable through the undercurrent of irritation in his voice. “How could you not hold dinner for me? We can fast five minutes longer tomorrow. For God’s sake, Julia, you never used to care about any of this stuff before!”

The child Julia, in her late thirties, cries as easily as when she was small. The tears trickled down her face as she lit the holiday candles. Not because of Rob’s anger, but because of the very justness of his words. She had certainly never cared about this stuff before. It had always been her father’s role to rush her mother, to rush all of them through the meal before Kol Nidre. Dressed in his best suit, his eyes blinking nervously behind his glasses, he used to eye his wristwatch while urging them to hurry. “Nine gulps of water at the end of the meal’,’ he had intoned at the head of the table. “Nine gulps to finish with and you won’t be thirsty tomorrow.”

Daddy, Daddy.

Around the table in Julia’s dining room the remnants of the feast have been cleared away. She stands behind the candles, her cheeks catching their glow, eyes suddenly radiant because Rob is home on time, has buried last year’s hatchet, is resolved to please (humor?) her. Rob faces Julia; their children and her mother flank the table between them. On the nearby buffet spread with an embroidered runner, the yahrzeit candles in their metal encasements occasionally sputter. Rob, his brown head bare, stumbles hurriedly over the kiddush.

Yahrzeit candles. Julia remembers.

Thirty years ago, the end of the ’50s. Their first year in Montreal, their first Yom Kippur in a strange land. She was eight. At the foot of the velveteen sofa a small table covered with a richly embroidered cloth. On it, six fat, metal-encased sputtering candles casting weird patterns on the ceiling, permeating the room with the smell of wax.

Julia, the child, wakes with a start, staring in disoriented detachment at the flickering patterns in the half-light. Her mouth is dry, sour.

From the other side of the wall, a sound she can’t decode. From her parents’ room. A muffled repetitive noise, like a series of stifled, cut-off sneezes.

Her soles cling clammy to the rose-patterned linoleum as she pushes the door to their room open. The room fully lit. Like an owl she blinks in the painful brightness, trying to make sense of the image. On the far side of the bed, her father’s bulky form doubled over — source of the muffled sobs. Her view now obscured. Mummy with dishevelled hair, in white nightie, bending over Julia, finger on her lips. Easing her out of the room.

“It’s all right;’ Mummy whispers. “Go back to bed, Julia. He does this every year. Every Kol Nidre evening. Mourning his dead All his dead from the War. Once a year he does this. It has nothing to do with you.”

Her father’s tears for his dead: mother, father, brothers — all swallowed by Auschwitz. Aunts, uncles, cousins, college chums. A first wife whose picture hangs in the living room over the velveteen sofa. A little girl — her sister — who would be ten years older than Julia had she lived.

“It has nothing to do with you.”

But her father had wept for the living as well. He had wept for Julia when she and Rob announced their engagement in 1967. Not the primordial sobs that had roused her on Kol Nidre night, just a misting of his glasses as in a fine drizzle. He had left the room in a hurry.

The summer of ’67. Mad euphoria after the Six Day War. Summer of Expo. Mini skirts and clogs and oversized sunglasses. A queue snaking in front of the Israeli pavilion. Her hand in Rob’s. The midday sun beating down. The shrill scream of seagulls. The odor of steamies and vinegar and fries.

“What do you think about next summer?” Rob asks.

“In general?”

“No, in particular. June is the month for weddings.”

“Is this a proposal or what?”

“Not ‘or what.’ I’ll be graduating.”

“Aren’t you supposed to go down on your knees?”

“Only if you insist.”

“I do.”

He falls on one knee in the queue. “Dear lady’,’ he begins.

She feels her face turn crimson. “Stop it!’ She tugs on his arm and he gets up, a bit sheepish.

“Well, what do you say?”

She squeezes his hand. “I’ll tell you after this pavilion.”

After the heat outside, the refreshing balm of a darkened room in the pavilion. A huge blow-up of men praying at the kotel — a soldier in fatigues, a Hasid with sidelocks, a man in a business suit. Return, oh Israel. This year in Yerushalayim.

Photos of eroded hills and barren plains, of malarial swamps and deserts. A painting of a ship overflowing with immigrants: visionaries and peasants, women and children, a people with luminous eyes locked in a dream.

And then a room, a chill somber room with only two artifacts: under glass, a small pair of scuffed lace-up shoes. A child’s shoes. “Recovered from Auschwitz.” On the wall behind, a photograph from the Warsaw ghetto. A little boy dressed in tatters, arms above his head in the gesture of surrender, before the guns of soldiers.

Julia flees the pavilion, Rob in tow, through the bright corridors of Israel reborn, of kibbutzniks taming the desert, of taped conversations in resurgent Hebrew, of the click-click of a slide show depicting sabras sharing their expertise with Africans. She flees, flees the sculptures and folk songs, the mosaics, the jewelry, the kosher restaurants.

Outside, in the sun, in the warmth, she faces him ragged of breath, her back to the pavilion, “I can’t marry you, Rob.”

It is like snuffing out life. Her life. His life.

“I’m going to Israel, “she says.

“Do you,” he asks, and she detects the disbelief in his voice, and its note will echo and re-echo in her ears across decades, “do you want me to convert?”

“I don’t know what I want. I can’t survive here without you. . . Yes, yes I want you to convert.”

“Julia, I don’t believe in that sort of thing.”

“What do you believe in?”

“I believe in you – and in the love I have for you . . . I believed,” he is crying, too, “in the love I thought you had for me.”

“I’m going to Israel!’ she says again.

But she did not go to Israel. Because at two that morning he phoned her. “I’ll convert’,’ he said. “Just so long as you know it’s for you. Religion leaves me cold. I can’t feel something I don’t feel.”

Well, as for religion — and she could have laughed hysterically but for fear of waking up her parents — it left her cold, too. Actually, it had left her parents cold as well. They had been reared in homes of rigid Orthodoxy on the Great Hungarian Plain. One of Julia’s grandmothers wore a wig over her shaved scalp, the other was so pious she kept separate corners of her kitchen for meat and milk. But this did not stop Julia’s father from shopping weekly at Hoffner’s on St. Lawrence Boulevard for ham and head cheese and debrecziner kolbasz. As a boy he had trudged with his father two miles in mud to the nearest minyan at a rich landowner’s farmstead every Shabbes. In Montreal he drove to temple once a year. On Kol Nidre.

Yet the Yom Kippur fast her parents observed with the selfsame stringency they had witnessed on the Hungarian prairies. Her father scoured the St. Lawrence fruit stalls in search of aromatic quinces for traditional quince compote for the festive dinner. He came home from work when the sun was still high in the sky. Her mother cooked chicken soup and honeyed carrots, tomato sauce and parsleyed potatoes. They lit yahrzeit candles and holiday candles. And then her father, who did not believe in God, who davened only on Yom Kippur, beckoned to them to array themselves before him in order of seniority. And he blessed her mother, Julia and her sister in the ancient words his father had once pronounced.

Daddy, Daddy.

In later years, after receiving her own blessing, Julia would lift her little girls up in turn to her father. He placed his broad hands on their golden heads, whispering “Yevorechecho” and she averted her eyes from his face, afraid of the tears she saw trickling from the corners of his eyes behind the glasses.

Rob declined to be blessed.

And when Julia’s father died two years ago, Rob declined the invitation to give blessings of his own. He had kept his promise and converted, but religion still left him cold. And can you really become a link in someone else’s chain?

Out in the kitchen, Julia’s daughters begin to stack the dishwasher after the festive meal. The clatter of silverware and dishes jogs a stray memory for Julia. Earlier in the day, while searching for her holiday tablecloth in the buffet, her fingers had caught in a thicket of tassels and knots.

She begins to rummage now in the buffet among a jumble of napkins and placemats. Had she really hidden it here, hidden it from herself, two years ago when her mother passed it to her wordlessly? After some moments, she pulls it out in triumph. Her father’s tallis.

Self-consciously she drapes it over her shoulders, then calls towards the kitchen.


They troop into the dining room, eyeing her a bit warily in the exotic get-up.

Julia’s eyes are moist. She spreads her arms and enfolds her daughters in a hug. The ancient words come back to her.

“Yevarechecha Adonai V Yishmirecha…”

May God bless you and keep you.

Elaine Kalman Naves was born in Budapest and now lives in Montreal where she writes both history and fiction