Sunday, September 19, 2010

Where is the Book of Life?

I have a true story to tell you, which occurred this past Friday at my synagogue, Shaarey Zedek Congregation in North Hollywood, California, on the evening of Yom Kippur, just before the moving Kol Nidre service that begins the holiest day of the Jewish year. An elderly man came into the sanctuary. He had a Russian accent and in broken English began asking people, "Where is book of life? I want to write my family in book of life." I tried to explain to him that God has the book of life and that we pray to God to write our names in it, but he responded, "No understand. Ruski. Where is the book of life?"

We have some Russian speakers at Shaarey Zedek, including Irine, the wife of our synagogue President, who is from Belarus. So I went asking for her, and eventually she was located and went to speak with the elderly man. I do not yet know what she told him or what was the result. Yet for some reason I was left with the vague feeling that I had been presented with a great test and had failed it.

In my reflections on the incident throughout Yom Kippur, however, two positive thoughts emerged. First was an overwhelming sense of gratitude to God that I was born and raised in the United States of America, and not under the Soviet Communist tyranny that did its utmost to suppress all religious practice and education, especially of Judaism, for some 70 years. The second was a feeling of awe that a man who lived under that system, and was so thoroughly deprived of his Jewish heritage, still had enough of a connection to his faith to know that there was a book of life, that he wanted his family to be inscribed in it, and that the place to look for it was in a synagogue at Kol Nidre time on Yom Kippur. While, as I said, I do not yet know the result of his conversation with Irine, I believe with absolute certainty that the old Russian Jew succeeded in having his family inscribed in the book of life.


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