With Aseret Yamei Teshuvah approaching last week, my thoughts, in a way, turned to Pesach – how would this Rosh HaShanah be different from all other Rosh HaShanahs?
For whom would I blow the shofar on the Jewish New Year this year?
For most of the last two decades, since I left Passaic and moved to the Forest Hills/Rego Park neighborhood, I had served as a volunteer baal tekiah, primarily at Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn, while staying with friends in Boro Park, or, in recent years, at Long Island Jewish Hospital/Northwell Health, around the corner from my apartment on Yellowstone Boulevard.
Each year, for one day (if Rosh HaShanah coincided with Shabbat) or two days, I would conclude my own davening early, walk to the hospital du jour, a small gray backpack with a supply of a few shofars and photocopied prayers in Hebrew/English/Russian and other Yom Tov necessities slung over my shoulder, and, with a list a Jewish patients supplied by the chaplain’s office in hand, walk through the wards, greeting everyone with a wish for a healthy New Year, and offering to blow the shofar. Non-Jewish patients and visitors and staff members were often as eager as the Jews to hear the sound of the shofar, as well as an explanation of their spiritual meaning.
Each year I would return home with memorable stories.
Each year blowing the shofar was a personal highlight.
Each year I began practicing my teruahs and tekiahs a few months in advance.
Until this year.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the sensible restrictions on the number of visitors or volunteers allowed into hospitals, it became apparent a few months ago that shofar-blowing at LIJ would be a no-go.
What would I do? What would happen to my avodah tradition?
In Hebrew, avodah has two primary meanings. Service, as in some form of labor. And prayer, as in avodah ha’lev, service of the heart. To me, my shofar blowing for people who were too infirm to make it to shul for worship services or to hear the shofar at home, was a vital part of my Rosh HaShanah. It strengthened my prayers of thanks for the health that I and my family experienced.
Last Sunday, I resigned myself to a Rosh HaShanah outside of a hospital. (Only one day of shofar-blowing, since the holiday’s first day was Shabbat.)
My shul closed because of the pandemic, I, like many members of the Jewish community, davened at home. And I blew the shofar for myself. Then, outfitted in a black raincoat and matching flat cap to protect me against the chilly late summer wind, I set out to do tashlich at Flushing Meadow Lake, a few blocks away, across a bridge that transverses the Grand Central Parkway.
I packed a khaki green sack with the tashlich verses, a few pieces of bread to be thrown into the water, and my small, heavily ribbed shofar. I made a quick prayer – maybe I would meet someone outside who needed to hear the shofar.
Usually, some senior citizens from the former Soviet Union, part of my neighborhood’s Bukharian community, are sitting outside on the benches in front of my apartment building, schmoozing. Usually, they’re glad to hear the shofar. The benches were empty on Sunday. Two blocks away I turned down the side street where the Masbia kosher soup kitchen distributes food to the needy. Maybe some people would be inside, sharing a holiday meal. The building was dark.
Turning towards the park, I noticed a few people standing outside a corner grocery, owned by a non-Jewish family, which carried a large amount of kosher food and numbered many Jews among its steady customers. I approached the people, my shofar visible in my hand – I started this practice in Lutheran Hospital a long time ago, in case someone Jewish not on my patient list would spot me and ask to hear the shofar.
One man in in front of the store - 50ish, bare-headed, wearing jeans and a light windbreaker - gave me a second look, which I recognized. “That is a shofar,” he declared to his companion, a young Asian woman.
“Are any of you members of the Jewish community?” I asked. I find that language less grating than the straightforward “Are you Jewish?”
“I am,” the man said.
“Have you heard the shofar today?” I asked – a strictly rhetorical question.
“Can I blow it for you?”
We didn’t exchange names. I didn’t want to interrupt his conversation. He just told me he lived down the block.
“Will it be loud?” he asked. Maybe he feared drawing attention to himself.
I assured him that I had blown a shofar in hospitals’ ICU units several times without disturbing anyone.
Dropping my navy-blue facemask to my chin, turning the shofar away from them (a necessary precaution in our social distancing era), I quietly blew a set of kolot - not loudly, because my out-of-practice lips nearly gave out.
“Can I pay you?” the man asked.
No, I told him, encouraging him to give to his favorite tzedakah – assuming he knew that Hebrew term.
“When is the last time you heard the shofar?” I asked him.
“I can’t remember the last time I was in temple.” Probably many decades ago.
I wished him and his friend a healthy New Year, heard him explaining the significance of the shofar as I walked away, and proceeded to the lake for tashlich. I passed a few people, obviously dressed for Yom Tov, who had already heard the shofar.
At the lake, where families were enjoying picnics and kicking soccer balls around, there also was no one for whom I could blow shofar.
I returned home. G-d had answered my prayer. He had provided someone – even if a lone neshamah – who needed to hear the shofar. It wasn’t a Rosh HaShanah like all other Rosh HaShanahs, but my avodah was complete.
At home, my thoughts again returned, in a way, to Pesach.
Next year, I prayed, I will be able to blow shofar in a familiar setting.
Ha’shana ha’ba’a in a hospital.
Steve Lipman is a longtime Forest Hills resident, was a staff writer at the Jewish Week from 1983-2020, and volunteers at Long Island Jewish Hospital - Forest Hills/Northwell Health.