Blessing The Czar On Yom Kippur
Illustration: Russian Matryoshka Dolls at Paris Fair by Thesupermat - Own work [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia
It was a sin to leave it on the shelf. This precious heirloom was one of the few remaining physical mementos that belonged to my grandmother, and it was time to put it to use.
It seems like an aberration to see orphaned, antique Judaic artifacts whose uses were once intimate participants in the course of family celebrations preserved in impressive, carefully crafted museum showcases. These artifacts are venerated for their artistic value, but they are no longer used for the purpose for which they were designed. Their value is actually diminished when they are put in airtight showcases, where they are safe from preying — and praying — hands and can no longer be used for their intended purpose.
I realized that not using the machzor (holiday prayer book) that my grandmother carried with her from Kanchuga, Galicia, when she immigrated to America a century ago was akin to the same sort of banishment as locking it away in a museum showcase. I always felt that this machzor was too precious to use and wanted to safeguard it from loss — until I realized that it was too precious not to use.
So for Yom Kippur, decades after my grandmother passed away, I took her prayer book to shul. When I opened up this book that had obviously been treated to many different repairs and bindings, I released an avalanche of frayed paper fragments that surrounded me on the floor, and I hoped that no one would notice that I was guilty of littering. Of course, no one noticed — it was during the concluding Yom Kippur prayer of Neilah when people’s thoughts are projected as high as their spirits can ascend. No one would have paid attention to the floor.
And then I started to giggle.
What could possibly elicit a chuckle during the concluding Yom Kippur prayer, Neilah? I was too embarrassed to even check if anyone took notice. After all, there is nothing funny about Neilah, and nothing could be more vexing or incongruous with the supreme sacredness of those minutes than mirth.
Nothing except that I had just read a blessing for the Czar and the Czarina! Listed among the most profound wishes and hopes that we have cherished for generations was a blessing for the Czar. I was most certainly the only person in the entire world who made a blessing for the Czar that year.
Perhaps, though, my laugh was not entirely out of place. The Czar and the Czarina, the Commissars, the Communists, the Crusades and their ilk are gone. They are footnotes, however voluminous, in history. Their purposes and ideologies were in a state of perpetual reinvention. Their artifacts and the remnants of their glory are confined to museum showcases — and hardly anyone speaks connects to their souls. They were impressive, monumental, and they are gone. Their endurance was illusory.
My grandmother’s frayed and stained machzor — and every other machzor that contains the same centuries-old prayers that reflected and spoke to the souls of previous generations just as they speak to us today — resonates with an irrepressible endurance. So we can laugh after all. We are here and they are gone.
It matters not that members of the international network of antiquarians who search high and low to unearth valuable artifacts with impressive provenance are not lined up at my door. My grandmother’s machzor is not for sale. The concrete parameters by which these antique dealers assess the value of an item is lacking.
The soul of a prayer book that belonged to a woman who remained a loyal Jew after living a lifetime in America is beyond the means of any antiquarian to discern or entertain. They would not understand that the trail of yellow crumpled shreds that fell from the prayer book does not simply trace the steps that I took down the aisle of the shul, but rather is a radiant path that connects me to my grandmother’s generation and to all the generations beyond her. An untutored eye would not understand that this book that was printed in Lemberg a century ago is actually many hundreds of years old.
The stately accoutrements of magnificent, sprawling, noble family estates compare not one bit to my frayed precious heirloom book. The gilded, imposing life-size portraits of famed ancestors, however grand, do not connect their descendants to their inner beings.
Portraits of our ancestors hardly exist. But their innermost thoughts on every Yom Kippur and the guiding force behind the daily habits of every day of their lives are the same as our own. Their lifelong habits, which reflected the most intimate expressions of their souls, and which are a triumph of spirit over substance, are the most precious and enduring heirloom that anyone could possess. And they most certainly are not for sale.
This article appeared previously in The Jerusalem Herald. Darla Chavkin Stone's features have appeared in magazines, news publications, and research journals in the U.S., England, Israel, and Mexico and on the web. She is the editor of "Explorations In Soular Space."