My First Holy DayEllen Gottlieb

I don’t recall my first Holy Day; it is really quite a blur. But I do remember visual composites of getting dressed up in my blue and white flowered dress, white anklets and my black patent leather shoes. I walked to the old Shul in my grandmother’s aging Bronx neighborhood, where men sat separately from women and everyone prayed and sang in a language incomprehensible to me. I sat with my mother in the balcony seats, looking down at the gaggle of men in prayer shawls, rocking back and forth, uttering half phrases, sing-song words of some unknown origin. I was a stranger in a strange land, not much older than six or seven, but already feeling distant and disconnected from all that was going on. Anger was beginning to form deep within me.

Several years passed, my grandmother died, and so we stopped going to the old Shul in her neighborhood. I continued to get dressed up, wearing newly purchased dresses and shoes, and walking to the new temple on the Grand Concourse, a brightly lit street with wide traffic lanes, beautiful trees of changing colors and exquisite regal apartment buildings. I had to meet my father, show him the respect he demanded, meeting his expectations that I be observant, religious, a believer. It never happened for me, and the more my parents demanded I believe, the more I’d pull away, resentful at being so trapped.

I don’t know why I felt so much tension and anxiety around the holidays. Maybe it was sensing my father’s own inner demons from childhood, his trying to please his mother by worshipping far beyond his true feelings; maybe it was living under the shroud of his stories of the Pogroms, stories that to this very day still pierce my heart with fear; or maybe it was looking into the dark, vacant eyes of so many of my neighbors, who survived the camps, and came to live in our building, arms tattooed with numbers, deep purple scars from dog bites or medical experiments. I couldn’t understand then how anyone could believe.

Yet here I stand, fifty plus years later, trying so hard to embrace my heritage. I believe that life is a journey and I trust that I will find my way so that I can also feel that deep connection that so many others experience.

— Ellen Gottlieb

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