September 16, 2022

Reviewing the past Jewish year on shuffle as Elul ends – opinion

By Barbara Sofer

Shuffle play. That’s the mode I’m using on my waterproof headphones, swimming the length of the shore on the Adriatic coast in Italy, from the first lido to the last. An hour swim.

With shuffle play you don’t know what’s coming next.

Now is the Hebrew month of Elul, time for the requisite review of past deeds. Although it would make sense to begin with the current year, as 5782 comes to en end the process feels more like a shuffle.

I decide to use my long daily swim – a routine I find I can happily keep – for assessment. The music helps: a mix of favorite songs from different periods of my life uploaded from my computer with the help of my techy grandchildren. Oldies but goodies, mixed with Israeli music and even a few Yiddish songs from my mother’s favorites, played on a hi-fi she’d proudly bought with her first earnings as a substitute teacher. Yes, that’s hi-fi, not Wi-Fi.

Thinking of this as I side-stroke over the waves, as if in confirmation, the next song up is Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire.” An inspired prayer leader in my Jerusalem synagogue once used this melody for “Unetaneh Tokef,” which leads me to think of the melody created by the late Yair Rosenblum after a visit to Kibbutz Beit Hashita, which had lost 11 of its children in the Yom Kippur War.

I think of my own experience in Israel during the war, how, in one of the many postcards to the front we sent every day, I’d ruined a surprise for a friend whose husband was called up, by mentioning that his wife had driven us to our volunteer jobs. His formerly nonmobile wife had started to drive!

Then I think of a visiting cantor in my hometown of Colchester, Connecticut, who started his prayer services entering through the back of the synagogue and singing the “Hineni” prayer to the tune of the movie Exodus. My teenaged heart, already beating to a Zionist drum, resonated.

NEARLY EVERY year, my husband and I rent a modest apartment at this beachside town in Italy for a sort of retreat before the holidays. No one speaks Hebrew, and few speak fluent English. The phone hardly rings when we are there.

From where this passion for the beach? I was born in New London, and although we lived in my father’s hometown of Colchester, New London’s Ocean Beach was my mother’s gathering place with her family. Her fondest memories were from the old Ocean Beach, where her social life bloomed with the pull of her local beach to Jewish young adults from near and far.

She helped her brother Izzy delivering newspapers, and he helped her pay tuition to Connecticut College for Women, also in New London, but a world away from her Yiddish-speaking household. She won the college German Prize, which included a semester in Germany, at Heidelberg University I think.

It seems inconceivable that anyone would have suggested a Jewish girl study where Jewish professors and students had already been banished (and where the Nazis’ euthanasia program would be developed). She didn’t go, of course.

Around the same time, the old Ocean Beach was obliterated by a hurricane on September 21, 1938, 25 Elul. Five days later, on Rosh Hashanah, the city council announced it was taking away the popular beach with its many concessions and boarding houses “for public improvement.”

The new Ocean Beach, based on Jones Beach across the sound in Long Island, was where my mother sat at the beach with her family. The rebuilt beach also featured a kid-friendly Olympic swimming pool, arcade, miniature golf and amusement park rides.

We drove half an hour to New London with blankets and beach chairs and tuna sandwiches on Colchester Bakery’s famous rye bread, inevitably acquiring the distinctive crunch of sand.

Our first stop was to pick up my mother’s sister, still in New London, on a street the address of which I remember until today. That’s because even as a kid, I was dispatched to buy the season parking pass and to use my aunt’s address. Locals got a deep discount, and since my aunt didn’t drive (and was widowed when her husband fell into a well – but that’s a different story), my mother said we should use her address. This was out of character, at variance with the usual rules of strict honesty enforced in our home. I was the one sent to get that ticket. I hated it. Of course, no one ever questioned the chubby, articulate kiddo with the five-dollar bill.

Swimming in the Adriatic, with the waves frothing gently on the sand and the scent of pine trees and sunscreen, I realize this still bothers me. I have greater sins to repent, but this one, I realize in a eureka moment, may be easy to fix. Later, back on shore, I indeed find a site online called “Saving Ocean Beach” and there’s a button for donations. No explanation needed.

Maimonides has taught us that the ultimate test of teshuva, that elusive word that means regret/repentance/change all wrapped into one, is whether or not you would act differently if presented with the same situation. The subtext is that you can never get exactly the same challenge, and that we, too, are in a different place this year from last.

Would I refuse such a task if I could go back in time? Would I have brought along my allowance savings to pay for the more expensive ticket, and if I had, would I have owned up to it? Was it even my role to question my elders?

Sometimes the sea is crystalline and I watch the minnows race in the shallows. Other times a wave can topple me, a sign that a thunderstorm is approaching. The waters get cloudy. On certain days, the current pushes me along and the swim feels effortless. On other days I have to stroke hard against the current to keep my bearings.

Most of my musing goes on as I’m getting early Beatles, Queen and Carol King in my ears – each with a memory attached. Then there’s “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” and Barbra Streisand’s “Avinu Malkenu” and another Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker,” the one with Kaddish.

All of my mother’s siblings and cousins and my beloved parents are gone. Who am I to think of anyone’s peccadilloes but my own?

We say in Elul that God is approachable, “in the field.” Also in the water.