“On Rosh Hashanah it is written; on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die…..” In that moment I carefully slipped my one fingered hand into its favorite place (my Dad’s hand) during services at our synagogue, Sinai Temple. I had been staring at the Belber girls, always dressed impeccably with the perfect shoes to match. I glanced down at my own custom-made shoes. Because of the mold that had been taken to provide me the most comfortable fit, the shoes were round shaped, with little pretense of an extension for my non-existent toes. Earlier that morning my dad had used shoe polish to make them especially shiny, as if that would improve their inescapably awkward appearance. I knew I was supposed to be excited to wear my wine colored shoes to temple, and one day in the near future at my batmitzvah, instead of the drab brown ones I wore to school. However, it was impossible for me to feel anything but depressed at the sight of these tiny, unattractive, “moon boots,” as I always called them.
Although my body was sitting with my family in the service, my mind focused on my friend, Josh, who sat two rows ahead of me. He had been sitting with his parents and older sister too, and I had just noticed his head was turned mouthing for me to meet him outside the sanctuary.
I whispered to my mother, also sitting nearby. “I have to go to the bathroom.” I watched Josh get up and leave and then waited a few moments to follow him into the hall, near the gift shop. “Let’s do Strangers in the Night!” I said to my friend, excitedly. Josh and I shared a love for music and it created an indescribable bond among a couple of ten-year olds. Years later we would play in the high school band together, he playing percussion, me on the trombone.
We actually didn’t know the full lyrics to Frank Sinatra’s melody, but Josh and I always thought it was funny to walk past each other singing, “Strangers in the night,” and then with a quick turn, burst out simultaneously and exclaim, “exchanging glances!” After a few rounds of our childish game, I looked down at my small shoes and my mood instantly turned.
Without having to ask, somehow Josh knew just what to say. “Hey, Meg. I like your shoes, actually. They are one of a kind and that is cooler than always being like everyone else.” I glanced at my lifelong friend feeling instantly grateful. There was something about his spirit that was always selflessly motivated to help others.
“Mom, what does it mean to be “generous of spirit?” We had just picked the kids up from Eisner earlier in the afternoon, their beloved sleep-away camp. Apparently the subject came up during Shabbat services. I turned to Charlie and decided to keep it simple but meaningful. “Char, there are words that describe this. You’ve heard us use the Yiddish word, ‘Mensch?’ A person with a generous spirit tends to extend to others what they want for themselves. It occurs to them to want to make someone else happy, just because. I once read it is the ‘Golden Rule that describes a person.” Fortunately, after such a long day, he didn’t ask me more what the Golden Rule was. I knew I’d have to look that one up.
Last week following Rosh Hashanah services at our synagogue, I was looking for our kids and bumped into the religious school principal. She asked if I’d ever seen the movie, “Woman in Gold?” She proceeded to describe how the film was about a famous 1907 painting by Klimt, “Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I.” The painting was made of oil and gold on canvas, showing elaborate and complex ornamentation. The plot of the film was based on the true story of the late Maria Altmann, an elderly Jewish refugee who fought the government of Austria for almost a decade to reclaim this painting that was stolen from her relatives by the Nazis. The subject, Adele, was Maria’s aunt. But beyond the intriguing storyline, the principal wanted me to know that Adele appeared in the painting with her hands folded in such a way as to conceal a deformity. She followed up with a link describing the iconic portrait and its intriguing story.
In fact, when I got home from work, I read the article and how it mentioned how her hands were hidden to conceal a deformed finger, and described it so the reader believed, “the gesture only add(ed) to her mysterious grace.” Somehow that statement frustrated me. Sure, it was a nice spin on things, but it left me unsettled.
The portrait had been on my mind all week, and I realized sitting in services earlier today–just why. There is a teaching on a prayer that we say at Yom Kippur, called the Unataneh Tokef. The prayer’s most well-known lines, at least to Jews, are: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written; on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die.” The Days of Awe are so named because it is during the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that Jews are called upon to examine their lives, their relationships with people, and their relationship with God. We are to ask ourselves questions about how we live our lives, and whether we have done our best to live our lives to the fullest, with purpose and meaning. Sitting in synagogue, meditating and thinking about how to answer those questions for the coming year, I resolved to continue to at least do one thing differently. Where in the past I had frequently resented people who offered to help me do things I could do myself, I decided that I needed to continue to recognize their generosity of spirit and let go of my negative interpretations of their actions.
Then, in that moment, the concept of the Golden Rule popped back in my head. When Charlie didn’t press me on the meaning last summer, I let it go. Today, I would use my quiet afternoon to look it up. I never realized the term came from many religious sources, including a verse from Leviticus – “Love your neighbor as you love yourself (Lev. 19:18) and also the Book of Matthew in the New Testament: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
All of a sudden, my mind leapt back to the Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I. Was Klimt’s decision to hide Adele’s hands meant as a courtesy? A protective act? As someone who used to hide my misformed hands for years in public and in photos, to me it simply represented a missed opportunity for Klimt and his subject to reveal true beauty on the canvas, imperfections and all, to stand for all time. We don’t really know if it was Adele who as a “hider” and requested the disfigured finger to be cloaked or if it was Klimt who chose to conceal. All we know is that all live our lives we are constantly presented with choices. If we’re fortunate, we are surrounded by others with the best of intentions and mutually benefit if our purpose is guided by the Golden Rule.
On this Day of Atonement it occurs to me that the best way I can fulfill my life’s purpose is to make a conscious effort to appreciate that my words and behavior can have an impact on others. Like all of us, my time on this earth is uncertain and, according to tradition is already sealed. However, if I’m fortunate I’ll continue to live my days surrounded by many mensches, who know just when to help me….keep my chin up.
As I played with my friend, Josh Gottheil outside the sanctuary during the High Holidays so many years ago, neither of us knew that his entry in the Book of Life would be so short. My friend with a heart of gold died of leukemia on April 4, 1989 at age 19. I think about him often, and especially on days when I am trying to live my life like he did—always to its fullest.