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Holding Hands With a Lonely King

Remembering last Rosh Hashanah, in the thick of the pandemic

Yehuda Fogel
September 03, 2021

Rosh Hashanah, 2020. The crowd sits restlessly, shifting in their seats. The thick New York air of late summer drips down necks and under armpits, keeping everyone in a limbo state between uncomfortable temperature and uncomfortable movement. Outside, under the white canopy of a synagogue tent, a hazan leads a swelling song:

Uv’chen Yishtabach Shimcha L’ad Malkeinu
And thus may Your Name be praised forever, our King

The crowd hums along at the right moment, standing and sitting with the opening of the ark’s curtains, along with the circadian rhythm of the prayers. Patiently impatient for the prayers to pick up, for the king to show up to claim his crown like every year, the crowd waits out the climax of the lengthy prayers in the late summer’s slippery heat.

I shift uncomfortably in my seat, a young man, unadorned by a tallis in a synagogue tent full of prayer shawls. My thoughts are far from open arks and siddurim, but on open articles and Twitter pages, on the many stark reminders of the harsh outlines of this new reality that have occupied my headspace this last year.

The tent feels stuffy, something muggier than the New York air constricting me. Something about the prayers, the hopes and expectations for a year that will somehow be better than this last hangs heavy in the air. Yehuda Amichai’s words about Jerusalem pop into my head: “the air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers/and dreams/like the air over industrial cities.” That’s this room, clogged up with prayer and hope and dreams of life and death, hopes in a king who gave us death to change his game all of a sudden. And then Amichai’s words: “It’s hard to breathe.”

It is the assumption, the hope, of kingship that hits harder this year. Even after a year of destruction, we hope for this same king, as if nothing is different? Even after a year in which our king was strangely absent, we wait? (Or is it still strange, after all these years of absence? Perhaps presence would be more jarring than absence, at this point, all things considered.) But that’s not really what this is about, I remember, sitting in my seat. Is reckoning with the question of kingship, of the role of the ruled in the decisions of the ruler, part of the game of Rosh Hashanah? Does the crowd question their complicity in their crowning of a king whose decisions seem to have killed so many of his own people? Should these people (we?) question (ever, just once?) their complicity with the capricious king’s decisions, and their role in his rule?

I stand up as these questions run through my head, walking out of the shul as if in urgent need of the restroom, walking instead off of the shul’s property, past the two off-duty police officers paid from some government grant or another (yet another stark reminder), past the little boys playing an aggressive game of football, out to a long stretch of quiet street.

With each lengthening stride I lighten up, as my thoughts move up from the grounded songs of the synagogue, the gender-separated rooms of white garments and tablecloths, beyond it all. My thoughts move up over the rows of quiet houses dressed up like homes, the parked cars and golf courses and quiet suffering, crying softly everywhere. Up, like a light mist, like the rising giggle of an infant, to the big blue sky, to the improbable vastness of it all. I drift up to the shining beyond, to a crowded hall of people clad in white. I look around, seeing throngs of people that seem to be full of a nervous anticipation, chattering quietly with that soft buzz that lives between the opening act of a concert and the headliner. A pregnant wait, those are nice words for the mood, I think to myself, as I look to the middle of the hall, where there is a small pedestal—no, a cushion, with an ornate crown resting on it. Overly ornate, almost comically overwrought with precious stones and metals, it seems out of place with the simple dress of most of the room.

I take a moment to breathe in the crowd, tasting their patient impatience in my mouth, before wandering outside. Even here, I feel like a visitor, a tourist to their eagerness. I walk out, past the pearly balustrades, behind the palace, where I find a shady spot to sit down against the high walls. A bit down from me, I spot a man anxiously smoking a cigarette. I sit and watch him, finding a strange comfort in his nervousness in this peaceful spot. Dressed in faded robes that might have once been stately, they are now ragged, tearing at the stitching, his cigarette not the only sign of the toll this year had taken on him. He sports long, greasy hair and a beard just past socially acceptable; he’s clearly drained, weakened from the quarantine.

The overgrown man spots me spotting him, and takes a few moments checking me out as I check him out. People always tell me that I make it too obvious when I’m people-watching. Shaking his head, he grinds out his cigarette with an old leather boot and sits down next to me.

“Everything all right?” I ask, feeling his discomfort.

He sighs, letting out a soft heave of a sigh that reminds me that anxiety and anger share a place in angst.

“It’s been a tough year,” he murmurs, more to himself than to me, looking down at the ground.

“It has,” I reply.

“Lost anyone?” he asks.

“Thank God,” I respond. I see him visibly flinch at these words. “My family has been safe, healthy. How about yours?”

Long silence.

We sit, and I turn to see a thick tear pooling up in the corner of his eye. I turn back quickly.

“I’ve lost some people close to me,” he finally says. I hear in his voice something beyond the weightless suffering of loss; something of the weightier suffering of self-recrimination. He feels responsible.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I say, feeling inadequate.

“Thanks. Yeah,” He responds, with more of a grunt than anything else.

“Hard to know what God was thinking this year,” I offer half-heartedly, filling up our painful silence with sound, any sound.

He glances at me sharply, his eye catching mine. What’s that I see in his eyes? A glimpse of something impossibly hurting, damaged, wounded, no: alone. A solitude so deep, almost as if he has never tasted love, compassion, togetherness.

“Yes, it is,” he whispers.

“Who knows, maybe he wants us to feel connected, unity in times of crisis and all that jazz?” I get the sense that this man is too tired for my recycled apologetics.

With a soft smile, he says, “How’d that work out for you?”

Now I grunt my response, “Yeah …”

We sit in the silence for another moment, as the late summer sun bakes our feet, alone together.

“Well maybe it’s the opposite then,” I say, trying again, this time more heatedly, with an urgency that feels true to this moment. “So maybe it’s not connection we were meant to feel, but loneliness—his loneliness. Maybe he wants us to feel how alone he must feel, trapped up in his great divine omniscience, that palace of grief or joy or whatever the hell happens in the pearly gates of His Aloneness.”

He looks at me with his impossibly hurting eyes, impossibly soft eyes, impossibly broken eyes.

My eyes well up, and I catch my breath, look down. A tear crawls down my cheek, as I think of the long days that bled into impossibly long nights of this past year, week after week, month after month after month. I breathe deeply, swallowing my tears down, swallowing down the long walks when walks were still remotely satisfying, swallowing down all the grief and hurt and pain and loneliness, the impossibly long loneliness that sits lodged in my throat, pressing against my thin levees to burst out.

My hands ball up, sweaty, and I feel another hand find mine, squeezing my hand gently. I feel his body shaking through his hand, as we cry together in the warm sun, rising against our shade. I have held in these tears for so long, for so many months of staring at screens deep into the night to ward off what might come in those moments before sleep. I feel my desperate tears rushing out now, long awaited. It feels as if the sun’s warm waves of light are its own humble attempts at crying along with us, fat heavy tears of sunshine rolling along our faces.

We sit quietly together, like this, two broken people pretending no longer.

“Nothing makes any sense, does it?” he says, trying for a painful laugh.

“I guess not,” I say, and we look at each other, smiling through our warm tears.

“Think this year will be any better?” I ask.

His grip on my hands tightens for a moment, uncomfortably.

“I hope so. I’m not sure if I … I’m not sure if I can take any more of this, to be honest. I … yeah.”

We stay like this for another moment, for what feels like the fastest eternity I have ever felt.

“I better go,” I say, pulling my hand back.

“Me, too,” he says, getting up.

“Think we’ll make it?”

He smiles softly at me yet again, as we stand up and stretch out our pain.

“Whatever happens, I hope that you find joy, and that you find yourself somewhere in the sadness,” he says, his eyes searching mine.

“Maybe we will both find ourselves in all of this loneliness,” I say as I pull him into a hug.

With one last look into his hurting eyes, which feel just a bit more settled, less stormy than before, more wind than rain, we say goodbye, and I turn to leave.

I walk past the hall, past the crowd’s noise, the off-duty cops, the kids playing football a tad too aggressively.

My thoughts drift down, falling softly from the impossible vastness, from the big blue sky, to the quiet streets of homes dressed like houses, to the parked cars and soft sadness of golf courses and full synagogues. As I make my way back into the white, mundane tent full of prayers and people, I feel just a bit lighter. The prayers, after the hour and a half of my absent-minded walk, feel just a little less urgent, less needy, more hopeful. How can the people choose again a leader that made the questionable decision to throw our world into pain, confusion, and grief? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure the leader knows either. I’m not sure anyone in this game knows the answer or even the question, but for a moment I find myself caring less about the headlines and trending tweets, as I feel the echoing reminder of a soft, sweaty hand holding my own, remembering the impossibly hurting eyes that I saw.

Even if I can’t make sense of any of it, the wafting breeze of prayer feels kinder now. I pick up the book I hide under my Machzor, a collection of poetry by Rilke, and read a few of my favorite lines, lines that have clung to me desperately in the long moments of this past year.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.

I will keep going. I will let it all happen to me, the beauty and the terror. Somewhere nearby is the country of life—a dark, desperate, hopeful country. I have been there, I have reached out my hand. Maybe someone will still find my hand in this earth-bound country that they call life, hold it, and we can be lonely together for just a moment. Perhaps I might again hold hands with a lonely king.

Yehuda Fogel is a writer and editor at 18Forty, a Jewish media company, and was formerly an editor at the Lehrhaus, an online forum for Jewish thought and ideas.