First Person: On Rosh Hashanah, I Didst Laugh

This is not my mother’s round challah, but I promise, hers looked just as enticing. | Photo by MargoeEdwards / iStock / Getty Images Plus

A stranger tells Sarah that she’s going to have a baby, and she laughs; it’s well past the time for such things. When God asks Abraham about it later, Sarah is afraid, and denies having laughed. “Nay,” God says, in a stuffy translation of the early 20th century. “Thou didst laugh.”

There is some disagreement as to what her laughter signified. Onkelos believes that Sarah was being rebuked for laughing mirthlessly, as if she lacked faith in God to deliver the goods; Rashi believes it was genuine, joyous laughter. (Esther M. Shkop, a scholar and teacher, has written insightfully on this debate.)

At services this year for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which I attended in an Ambler backyard, I didst laugh. Five families, with 25 people between them, shuffling their chairs around the backyard to follow the sun that unevenly warmed a brisk morning, trying to maintain their distance from the other families as they did so. Was mine a laugh of joy, or a mirthless bark? The Sages are curiously silent on this.

Much of the past six months has brought the latter. Of course, the pandemic worsened, the mirthless bark says. Of course this was the year that I had planned to do X, now impossible. Of course, the rules of the virus have dictated that our elderly relatives, most vulnerable to the sickness, must also remain the most isolated. Of course.

Laughing the joyous laughter can feel perversely cruel. Who am I to laugh like this, as nearly 200,000 have died, with more to follow? What comfort I must live in, to throw my head back and do that.

I didn’t laugh when my father told me that he was going to arrange High Holiday services with some of our close family friends. Not because it wasn’t welcome news — it was — but because it was June, I believe.

Implicit in the proposal to make those plans was the dark knowledge that the pandemic, quarantine, COVID, however you refer to All This, was going to continue for some time. I said it sounded like a good idea, and I mostly forgot about it. We played lots of Settlers of Catan and worked quietly in separate rooms.

My father met semi-regularly with E. and her son M., a supremely gifted, liturgically fluent singer who would take the lion’s share of the davening. From inside, I saw them sit at a distance on our patio, tweezing out what they determined to be the most vital sections of the Mahzor Lev Shalem that we would have used in synagogue. Thusly, a service was built from the columns of a color-coded spreadsheet, noting prayers, page numbers, allotted time per prayer and the hardest column to fill: “Who?”
Who, indeed. My two brothers and I were unilaterally enlisted as Torah readers, which sent me, at least, scrambling for recordings of my pasukim that used the High Holiday trope (thank you to B’nai Tikvah in Canton, Massachusetts). As the Days of Awe drew nearer, the spreadsheet was filled, slowly but surely. N. volunteered to talk about the Zichronot; R., her husband, the Malchuyot.

Meanwhile, a borrowed Torah appeared in my mother’s office, promoted from mudroom status at the beginning of the pandemic. It sat in the “do not forget this on the way out of the house” spot usually reserved for wallets and, once, homework.

On the morning of the service, our middle brother looked at his Torah reading for the first time. He claims that the total number of mistakes he ended up making in his leining were equal to mine and, therefore, my practicing had been futile. I contend that reading straight past the ending of the assigned portion, unwittingly running a half a verse into mine, was greater in degree. We have a few days left to forgive each other, anyway.

Beneath the unwelcome shade of mid-morning, we rubbed our hands together and wriggled our toes as we gently laid the Torah down on a folding table and distributed machzorim. We began late, but we began.

We prayed and sang. M.’s voice brought wandering minds back to pasture, and friends offered their thoughts on different segments of the service. We mourned the fact that L., touched by God as a shofar blower, would not wow us this year, as the service fell on Shabbat; we said Kaddish for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I wondered what my bubbe was doing and, while I did, my youngest brother volunteered me to lead “Ein Keloheinu.”

As we packed everything back into the car, settling on a nearby creek as our tashlich spot, I tried to think how we might safely get bubbe to our Yom Kippur service, planned for our own backyard. Maybe, I thought, we could perch her in a tree above the service with some sort of ad-hoc pulley system, and sell it to her as being like a backyard opera box. She could watch us chant “Vidui” through tiny, gilded binoculars.

Wouldn’t that be a real laugh?

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