Here’s a High Holy Day story, a ma’aseh shehayah: it really happened. You will especially appreciate it if you are young and entering a current High Holy Day assignment with anxiety over what might go wrong. But even if you are not, read on. You’ll like it.
In days of yore, when I entered HUC, there was no Israel program. To the extent that we learned any Hebrew at all, we learned it here, and there were so few students, that we received High Holy Day assignments in our very first year, sometimes (if the holidays arrived early) even before school began, when we knew virtually no Hebrew at all, and certainly no liturgy. Before I had even stepped foot in HUC, therefore, I was assigned to a nursing home for seniors — an “old-age home,” as we called it back then — just a short train ride out of Manhattan.
The faculty member doing the assigning explained that I was to lead a traditional service, but pared to an hour and a half – that being the most that the elderly congregants would sit for. I had been chosen for this dubious task because of all the entering students, I was the only one who had attended an Orthodox shul as a child. I could at least read Hebrew. Besides, they understood that when I was ten, I had been in a High Holy Day boys’ choir; I must know some melodies. What I didn’t know, I could fake.
After endless hours paging through the hundreds of pages in the traditional machzor, I somehow made a list of what to do and what to skip, and arrived ready to chant services in some made-up nusach of my own, mostly from the Shabbat morning service, which I actually did know; and facing away from the congregation, of course.
The evening went fairly smoothly, I thought, but by morning, from behind my back, there soon arose a few anxious murmurs of dismay, largely by one man in particular. I ignored him as best I could (there is something to be said for not facing the congregation!); then somehow finished the ordeal, and left to take the train home.
On the way out the door, I ran into the nursing-home director, who asked me how things went. “Well,” I replied, as honestly as I dared, “I am afraid I did not live up to the expectations of these people. They really know the traditional service, and I am just learning it. One man especially was quite vocally upset.” “That must be Mr. Schwartz,” she replied. “He can be difficult. But don’t worry, Rabbi. He’ll feel better about you by Yom Kippur.”
“Yom Kippur?” I thought. I had forgotten that I had to come back. And did she really call me “Rabbi”?
After ten hard days of anxious planning, not to mention learning to sing Kol Nidre (more or less), and never mind writing two sermons with no prior experience in homiletics, I did, in fact, return. This time a gentleman from the congregation opened the door. It was Mr. Schwartz, who broke into a broad smile and the assurance, “Rabbi, we are so happy to have you back; and we are looking forward to another lovely service.” God alone knows what dire threat the director must have levelled at him!
But the next day did go moderately well, until I got to musaf, polished off the shortened Torah reading (with some mistakes of course), and then, feeling my way on the home stretch (we had dispensed with N’ilah), I launched into the last bit of davening.
That’s when it all fell apart.
From behind me, I heard first one voice, then another, and finally a rising chorus: yoyni, yoyni, YOYNI, YOYNI, Y O Y N I !! And then I got it. It was Yiddish for “Yonah, Yonah, Yonah, Jonah, Jonah, Jonah” I had completely forgotten the haftarah, the one thing that pretty much everyone in the room knew and was waiting for. What should I do? Interrupt musaf to go back to the haftarah? Ignore the crowd and forge on?
Before I could decide, a sound rang out, like a veritable voice from heaven, so loud it overcame the rebels! It was Mr. Schwartz to the rescue! “Sha! Quiet! You hear me? Who is the rabbi here, you or him? HE is the rabbi; YOU are not. Whatever HE says goes.” And with that, I finished the davening, ran through a final Kaddish, ended with Adon Olam (or some other song I knew), and left for home.
On the way out, Schwartz made sure to congratulate me. “Well done, Rabbi,” he lied; and then added, “You have a fine future ahead of you.” Shortly after, I entered HUC; and went on to become an expert in liturgy!
Here’s the moral. Do your best leading services over zoom or however you have to do it. But no mistake you make can prove fatal. And whatever you do, remember: you have a fine future ahead of you.