Yom Kippur 2007: "Good Advice"




23 September 2007

Dear Stanley,

Thank you for your Yom Kippur e-card with the printed sentiment, "Wishing you an easy fast."

Many of us have been using this greeting for as long as I can remember.  We all wish for an easy fast on Yom Kippur.  We recall the difficulty of not eating or drinking for twenty-four hours, especially we coffee addicts.

But your additional, special greeting was both a surprise and a challenge: "Enjoy your fast." Enjoy!  This was the first time anyone made this suggestion to me. What a great idea. Excellent advice.  I accepted the challenge to enjoy my fast this year.

Before leaving my apartment on Friday evening I turned off my computer, yes, Off, and I turned off my mobile phone and left it on the counter.  I decided to fast from these electronic gadgets. I suspected I would enjoy my temporary freedom from these two addictions.

The pre-fast dinner at Beth Elisheva Synagogue included very delicious salads and cooked vegetables.  I skipped the roast chicken, not because of any vegetarianism, but because I remembered how greasy the chicken fat feels in my mouth and how that makes the fast more difficult.  I chose fresh fruit and two pieces (OK, three pieces) of honey cake.  Stanley, you did say "enjoy," didn't you?

The dinner conversation is animated and enjoyable.  My companions are my friend Jeffrey, a college professor, and two other New Yorkers, Steve, a professional trumpet player and composer who went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, and Mike, a podiatrist from Staten Island.  Also, Gregory from Michigan who works for the US Trade and Development Agency here in Bangkok and my neighbor Alon from Tel Aviv, a graphic designer with a Master's Degree from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

The Synagogue is packed for the traditional Kol Nidre Service. And since it is Friday night the service also includes the prayers for the "welcoming of the Sabbath."

One of the visiting congregants is a highly trained Cantor so the Rabbi invited him to chant two prayers.  The young man's piercing operatic pleas for forgiveness combined with his devotion and cries of supplication was the most sublime cantorial music I have ever heard.

As the starting point for his sermon Rabbi Kantor chose the tragedy of the local airplane crash in Phuket in Southern Thailand and the likely pilot error.  At the conclusion he made the point that we must take responsibility for our decisions and our actions, bad or good, as they affect those close to us, and by extension, many others in the world.  Even as a feather, the smallest good action can tip the scales to righteousness.

I always enjoy Rabbi Kantor's sermons.  Current events, modern cultural tends, personal anecdotes, professional experiences, the teachings of The Bible, and the wisdom of The Talmud are woven into a cheerful, warm and thoughtful message.  The Rabbi speaks for five minutes or ten minutes or longer without any notes.

Rabbi Kantor is a Hasidic Jew, a Lubavitcher Rabbi, who grew up Australia.  He follows all the commandments of our tradition.  I don't believe he has ever shaved.  His beard is long and reddish brown. 

The Rabbi and his wife have seven children; the oldest is a teenage girl and his first son just had his Bar Mitzvah.  During the service assorted other children scamper about. The youngest son barely walks on his own.  The young Rabbi always has a smile; he seems to be enjoying every moment of his life.

Rabbi Kantor lives a strictly Orthodox Jewish life yet he never admonishes us if we are not Orthodox.  He never insists that we come to synagogue regularly or that we even join as a member.  His message is always positive as he simply encourages us to do the right thing in this world and to live our life in partnership with G-d's hopes and expectations.

While I was in Synagogue I let my mind wander and I began to think of my parents Ruth Polatschek and Otto Polatschek and my sister Paula Polatschek Wiesenfeld.  I thought of my grandparents Rosa Polacek and Herman Polacek and Pauline Lifson and Harry Lifson.  I thought of my Aunt Sue Taxier and Uncle Harry Taxier and my Aunt Ida Lifson and my Uncle Abe Lifson and my Aunt Bea Lifson and my Aunt Ida Kiewe.  All gone now.

I thought of my dear departed friends Bernice Diamond and Arlene Huysman and Zelda Monk and Dennis Mann. And finally I began to think of myself and my new home and how I can expand the enjoyment of my life here, especially my Jewish life.

Stanley, as you may remember from our childhood in the Bronx, it was traditional, and enjoyable for many families to take a long walk on Yom Kippur.  In fact, every year, my friend Jay S. and his family walked from our neighborhood in Highbridge in the West Bronx to The Bronx Zoo in the East Bronx. Now that is a very long walk, indeed.  I am told that in Israel, where everything shuts down completely, residents of Tel Aviv enjoy a stroll along the empty Expressway that is normally filled with speeding traffic.

Now please don't be angry with me Stanley, because I did follow your advice to enjoy the fast.  So, oye gevalt, I took a comfortable air-conditioned taxi to Yom Kippur services on Saturday morning.  But after the Yizkor service, I did take a long walk home with my friend Jeffrey who also enjoyed his fast.

And once home, I decide to enjoy the afternoon, free from electronic distractions.  First I devote two hours to updating my old-fashioned analog photo albums.  Yes, the large photos on my computer screen (shut down today) are clear and sharp and wonderful.  Yet manipulating a heavy book, and sorting photos and postcards, and pasting newspaper clippings is basic and tactile and stimulating, and, for me, always rewarding.

The Rabbi teaches us that contrary to popular belief, Yom Kippur is a happy holiday.  We have seriously and honestly asked for forgiveness and G-d has inscribed us in The Book of Life.  We are granted another year and this is cause for happiness.  And so as the afternoon continues, I am feeling happy.  I am also feeling strong and, unlike recent years, I am able to continue my fast.

Stanley, if you are disappointed with me now, I will understand. I asked myself how shall I be happy until sundown and the end of Yom Kippur?  I turned to my piano.

Yes, after months of ambivalence, no decisions and indecision, I finally bought a piano. It's an eighteen year old black ebony Yamaha upright that looks like new.  The hammers and dampers have been cleaned; the sound is rich and warm.  The bass notes fairly rumble and the treble is full throated.  I am happy. I enjoy the final hours of my fast.  I know it is a modified fast as playing the piano is not a Yom Kippur activity.  But it is my way to put aside the pull of daily activity and to concentrate on something beyond one's self.

The fast ends but I continue to enjoy the day and evening. It is time for my Break the Fast Birthday Party in Bangkok.

My birthday was on Tuesday but I planned a small gathering of friends for Saturday night at a local restaurant. I broke the fast with platters of fresh and fried spring rolls, cashew nuts with chilies, stir fried chicken and vegetables and two Singha beers. Towards the end of the evening we shared a moist vanilla layer cake topped with whipped cream and sweet tangerines. To my surprise the restaurant manager inscribed the cake, "Happy Birthday Mr. Jan." Yes, I am known respectfully as Mister Jan, and also by my more affectionate nickname, "Papa Jan."

Those three little words of yours, Stanley, "Enjoy your fast" had an influence more lasting than you could have imagined.  If we expect a day of hardship, then hardship will surely arrive.  If we put aside daily routines and expect a pleasant day, then a pleasant day we shall have.  On the simplest level, I did enjoy the day; my fast this year was "easy."  It's all about attitude, isn't it?

And so thank you, Stanley, thank you.  I am happy that you are my old and faithful friend.  You helped me this weekend.  Your kind thought -- "enjoy" -- will endure.