How did I get it so wrong?
I do feel a sense of relief, heading north from South Palo Alto, home of the Jewish Community Center…a sprawling expanse that will doubtless be the setting for some future existential film, all arid modernity and oddly numbered rooms. Anyway, it’s over, Yom Kippur 2012.
And what’s with the relief? Well, it’s only part of the feeling. The other part has to do with getting it…for the first time. It may be my life circumstance, or just the accumulation of age, but the service was full of common sense. Variations on why life isn’t just about me. And in the particular ways of this particular service, the reminders are useful. And it’s good to look around and see that others are on the same page. The same page, the same book. Even if the latter is on a roll, perhaps in both senses, and makes space-inefficient use of dead animal skins and crudely concocted ink. Never mind. Good to feel others on board, learning the same lesson, or being reminded of the same goals. Life is short, after all.
Anxiety, however, is endless. This particular version started, oh, about a week ago. Strange, Jane remarked when I told her, for one would think that someone holding office in the congregation would make the appeal. The latter being the pitch for donations. Doubtless this is a standard feature in Jewish services, particularly on the holidays. Of course, I wouldn’t really know. My knowledge of such things does not extend beyond one local congregation. But the numbers are down, attendance and membership dwindling. So there was the congregation president calling me. And there I was, responding. Would I do the appeal on Yom Kippur? Sure, I said. After all, I don’t do an awful lot for the congregation. And this was something.
So what would I say? The first thing that came to mind…more accurately, the only thing that came to mind…was an anecdote that I have told many people. Thing is, this story guarantees to amuse, but its grounding in fact is rather slim. Actually, the tale is compounded of several. Supposedly said in a more recent period of my life, it actually goes back about 15 or 20 years. The narrative has to do with me crutching around my apartment to answer phone calls from various companies. It would get a laugh, I thought. In fact, I thought a lot, probably too much. Yom Kippur is about as high as high holidays get among Jews. I didn’t want to screw this up.
Someone sent me guidelines for appeals. A good sign, after all, institutional memory and all. Seemed clear enough. Join the congregation, pitch in to help, donate money. Three simple messages, even with suggested language and a few details. Except for the humor. I decided to run my crutch-schlepping anecdote by one of the congregation officers. And she responded, well…. It’s a serious holiday, after all…and her appeal at Rosh Hashanah included some laughs. So, maybe some mild humor, but no more.
Problem was, I had no other ideas. Certainly, I had no time. Drop the crutching around the apartment story? Meaning, think up another? Not only did I not have more material, the stuff I did have…well, I mean, it was bound to get a laugh. And is this what I do, ‘get laughs?’ Particularly laughs at the expense of meaning? The more I brooded on the matter, the more certain I became that being only a pseudo-Jew, no background, virtually no education, no credentials except the regulation modified penis…who was I fooling?
Of course, there was other information. The previous rabbi had told me that I made good use of humor, getting the congregation laughing – then plunging into something morbidly serious. Like my shooting or my wife’s death. Fodder for a couple of drashes, i.e. sermons, at past holidays. Still, what did I know? Or how did I trust what I thought I knew? So many parent figures in the background, a father-figure rabbi, a mother-figure congregant.
Me screwing it up. Being irreverent, getting attention…not understanding that services weren’t about me. So what to do but pick and choose advisors? I’m sure you have it right, said Jane. The advice I decided to heed, while proceeding with caution. And what did ‘caution’ look like? It looks like me rolling up the wheelchair ramp to the backstage of the Jewish Community Center theater, now functioning as a bimah…about twenty minutes early. You never know, the haftarah might get cut short, and then I’d be on. Don’t ask me precisely what the haftarah is, by the way…just that it’s a commentary synced to the Torah portion of the day.
Things look very odd from the wings. They sound even odder. Stage lights from this angle throw the principals into silhouette. Amplification bounces back from the house. It’s an artificial environment, and there’s no preparing for it. Still, I have prepared. Keep a straight face, I had told myself. Pretend you’re not expecting a single chuckle. Your job is to tell a story, pausing for the laughs as though you’re trying to think of what to say next.
All of which I did. Rolling off the stage in a cloud of uncertainty. Trying to read the expression of the usher who had come to open doors, leading me back into the house. The congregation president appeared in the darkened hallway, slapping me on the shoulder. I rolled my wheelchair back into position and Vic, roughly 20 or even 25 years my senior, turned around to offer me a thumbs-up. ‘Daiyenu,’ was what I felt, although the Hebrew word did not even cross my mind at the moment. Too bad, for it summed things up perfectly. This would have been enough. A sufficiency of approval.
But there was more, considerably more as the service ended and the congregation filed out. ‘You always tell such great stories,’ someone said. ‘I remember that drash about forgiveness on Yom Kippur a couple of years ago.’ This from someone whose name I can’t recall. Worse, I am not sure of which story she is speaking. Anyway, there’s more of this. The congregation founder, the vice president. Everyone seems delighted. ‘Such sincerity and natural openness….’ And this might go right to my head, except that my brain is spinning.
It’s not just the disability, I conclude, but this is part of it. The broken body gets people’s attention. It establishes credibility on several levels. Gravitas. Sincerity? Well, why not. My friends know that I am frequently arch. But they have either known me for many years or live in the UK or both. No harm in working it into the act, I am thinking. And on this day of religious observance, if this isn’t a miracle…the fact of transmuting neuromuscular base metal into performance art gold…well, I’ll eat my Kippa.