It is often hard to determine what is holy, really, personally holy, and the job is made harder still by the knowledge that one’s children are watching intently. It is from us that they begin to learn themselves how to determine what’s holy to them.
This year, the holiest of holy days in Judaism — Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement — fell on my birthday. It was a double whammy, religious pressure mixed with the personal pressure and expectation of my own individual Most Important Day. I couldn’t decide what to do. Would I return to the temple in Long Island where I’d gone for Rosh Hashanah and sat through a lovely three-and-a-half-hour service with my children (mostly) well-behaved by my side? The kids had been fidgety, but patient, but I’m not sure if they learned the lessons of the prayers, or even the beautiful sermon, which came at the end, long after they had been able to stay focused.
I remembered my own experience with Judaism growing up in Tucson. We often drove in a caravan to Mt. Lemon, to a Boy Scout camp, where we sat on logs as our services were held amidst tall swaying trees that lent a greater meaning to the stories of Creation.
The services were lovely, filled with music, stories and poetry. But my most spiritual moments were usually those spent alone in the woods — by myself, with a book — when I could really think about what was important to me, helped along by one or another author of my choosing.
With this in mind, somewhat guiltily, I eschewed temple and took off out of the city with my family to the Hudson Valley, to the magical woodsy residence of my great inspiration and mentor, Eleanor Roosevelt. At Val-Kill, led by a ranger devoted to reminiscing about the great First Lady, often in a voice replicating Eleanor’s own, I was brought to tears many times. We sat through a short film, the boys listening intently on the edge of their seats, that showed the ferocity with which Mrs. Roosevelt fought for equality for people of all races, creeds and colors, rich and poor, male and female.
The film told the story about how the brave lady drove into the dark night, past Ku Klux Klansmen who had put a $25,000 bounty on her head, to show her solidarity with blacks who were being put to death. This strong sassy woman gave a piece of her mind to Nikita Khrushchev about the idiocy of the Cold War, told JFK that she would support his candidacy for president only if he pushed harder for civil rights.
And she wrote, and wrote and wrote. Like an early blogger, she logged a 500-word column every day for years, outlining her perspectives as a very real individual, albeit one with an incredible power to change the world. She wrote 27 books and hundreds of how-to columns in major magazines to help mothers and housewives learn how to live, alleviating anxiety with advice such as that what really mattered in the end was “the satisfaction of knowing that you stood for the things in which you believed and had done the very best you could.”
The boys paid rapt attention to the words of the ranger-devotee, asking questions that showed their curiosity and wonder at this amazing woman, born the day before I was many decades before, who tried to help in so many ways, large and small, during a time not at all unlike our own.
We wandered the trails Eleanor walked, watching in wonder as eagles flew overhead, and pushed ourselves past our fear of the steep trail to the Top Cottage where the Roosevelts went to marvel at the ridge-top view of the Hudson River and the Catskills beyond.
It wasn’t temple, we didn’t do a ritual fast, but this, for me, was a holy place, a place for reflection on the respects one must pay to something, potentially someone, far greater and more powerful than oneself, something or someone that inspires us to be the best that we can be.
Like most choices I make these days, I’m always cognizant of the ramifications any decision will have on my children. But this one felt right — and I felt supported by Eleanor’s spirit and her idea that one’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes.
In the car on the way home, Eli chimed in from the backseat that he really connected to Roosevelt.
“That was so cool,” he said. “It reminded me of you. … You’re like that.”
My heart skipped a beat and I crossed my fingers. If only, in some small way …
But the impact that this great woman’s historic efforts had on my children gave me my own wish for the Jewish New Year: I will strive to live in her image and, hopefully, so will my children. That’s something I can pass along with no problem.