Forty Years and Counting

“God? Are you up there? It’s Yom Kippur. God, are you listening? I want to understand what’s going on. Why are we being attacked? What did we do? Why do they hate us so? God, are we going to die today? Can’t YOU do something?!?!”


Forty years ago, on Yom Kippur, I was twelve years old. Instead of sitting – bored and daydreaming – in a synagogue, I found myself praying to God from a dark, creepy bomb shelter in the basement of our apartment building in Ramat Gan, Israel. My mother, three siblings, and I were terrified. The sentence from the Yom Kippur liturgy tauntingly shouted repeatedly in my ears: “On Yom Kippur it is determined who will live and who will die.” I silently and fervently prayed I’d live to see another day. Because, on that holiest of holy days, a war broke out. Israel was attacked by Lebanon and Syria up north; by Jordan in the east; and by Egypt in the south. I had recurring visions that we all would be pushed west and drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.

When the Yom Kippur War broke out, my father was in America on business. My thirty-two-year-old mother tried to be brave for us, but she didn’t fool me. We were alone and scared. We worried that he wouldn’t be able to get home to us. Or, even worse, that he would get home and find us all dead. That day was when I really learned what praying was all about.

A few days after the initial Yom Kippur attack, we started to resume our lives. We kids were allowed to go back to school. I clearly remember that we didn’t study a thing that first day back.  Instead, we taped all of the classroom windows so the glass wouldn’t shatter in the event of an explosion. The student body and the faculty convened in the gym to view slides of different bombs to be on the alert for. We had numerous evacuation drills in case we had to go under cover. But the worst part of the day occurred as we played basketball during recess. Above our childish shouts and teasing, my friends and I suddenly heard a blood-curdling scream. We froze; stunned into silence. Then, a glance at Ovadiah Cohen’s face told us that the screeching had come from his mother. As he ran to his home, directly across the street from the schoolyard, we simply stood there bewildered. We didn’t know what to say or do. Later that day, we learned the horrible news that both of his brothers had been killed in the war. That day marked the end of my childhood.

Every Yom Kippur since 1973, at exactly two o’clock in the afternoon, an air-raid siren goes off in my head and I immediately am flooded with memories of that day…of that week…of that year. I know that September 11 was a horrible day for New Yorkers and the entire the United States, but for me the world was forever changed that frightening day forty years ago.

*   *   *

Even the least observant Jews know that Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. Starting Friday evening, it is the one day during the year when we make the time to acknowledge our sins and to ask for forgiveness – from each other and from God. We also take this opportunity to contemplate the errors of our ways and to commit to do and to be better. I personally have always taken this day seriously and have approached every aspect of it with honest, sincere, positive intent and with a genuine desire to be a better person and live a better life.

But this year, I’m finding it difficult to focus. With a civil war in Syria, the puzzling interventions of Russia (did you read yesterday’s op-ed from Putin in the New York Times?), unrest in Egypt, and an ongoing threat from a nuclear Iran – can you blame me? The world is worse off today than it was when I was twelve! The memories and questions are drowning me…“God? Are you up there? It’s Yom Kippur again. The Middle Eastern conflicts rage on. God, are you listening? I want to understand what’s going on. Why is this still happening? Why do they hate everyone so? God, are we all going to die today? Can’t YOU do something?!?!”

*   *   *

To the best of my knowledge, I personally don’t know anyone who is truly evil – people who are terrorist bombers, rapists, pedophiles, child or wife abusers, animal killers, or murderers. I only know people who try to live a decent life. And, while we all may be flawed and may make mistakes, I know we can redeem ourselves from those transgressions if we are willing to be honest, dig deep, and do the work to change.

But, it’s time for those of us who want to be good and do good to figure out how to deal with the insidious evil and ongoing conflicts around us. Educators, clergy, politicians, business executives, media moguls, entertainment royalty, and decent citizens alike must band together – putting aside differences and utilizing all resources at our disposal – to find solutions that make our world a better place. If we don’t, who will? If we don’t, are we willing to live with the consequences of our inactions?

Forty years from now, at the ripe old age of ninety-two, what will I be saying to my children and grandchildren? What questions will I be asking of God then???

*   *   *

On this Yom Kippur, I pray that we all find ways to actively bring more understanding, tolerance, patience, compassion, love, and peace into our world. Gmar chatima tova. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Good Deeds.   

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