Baruch atah adonai elohenu melech ha’olam asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vitzivanu lehadlik ner shel (shabbat ve) yom tov.
Blessed art thou, O Lord Our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Thy commandments, and commanded us to kindle these Sabbath and holiday lights. Amen.
This is the prayer my mother said every Friday evening for Shabbat, adding “yom tov” on the evenings that holidays began. I stood beside her in our dining room as she lit each candle and sang the blessing in Hebrew, then recited it in English. Her candlesticks were brass, four of them, that her grandmother was supposed to have brought with her when she immigrated to America. They are mine now, and have stood on my dining room table as long as I have had a dining room and a table, since I moved into my house in West Tisbury.
It is the same prayer we began the service with last Friday at sunset. It was both Shabbat and the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year 5784. You will be reading this during the Days of Awe, the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which will begin at sunset this Sunday.
Preparing for the High Holy Days and writing this article has brought back so many memories. My parents were one of the very few Jewish families in Ridgefield, Conn., when they moved there in 1946. They were newlyweds, beginning their life together. Both pharmacists, they bought Mignery’s Drug Store, which became Smith Pharmacy, and the house on East Ridge where I was born in 1949.
My parents were proud of being Jewish. It was important to them both that we children were raised as Jews. We attended Hebrew School and services. Mom kept a kosher kitchen with two sets of dishes. My parents were observant in their own way. Which brings me to the High Holy Days.
They were special in our house, for the rituals of candle-lighting, the dinners with relatives, fasting, and breaking the fasts. Best of all was that my parents closed the store and we attended synagogue as a family. If you know anything about the old days of running a small mom-and-pop pharmacy, it was a commitment of long days, 8 am to 9 pm, making deliveries after closing the store, being available if a doctor called during the night. It defined much of my childhood, so you can imagine the rarity of the store being closed and both parents being unavailable to doctors and patients while we sat together in the sanctuary at the United Jewish Center in Danbury.
For much of my adulthood, I didn’t attend services until, encouraged by friends Nicole Cabot, Nancy Salon, Martha Fleishman, and Cathy Mann, I joined the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. As I walk through the door, I feel the physical memory of sitting with my parents, both still alive then, my family as it was. I remember the sounds of familiar prayers. The voices and music are different at the Hebrew Center, familiar and different at the same time. I am surrounded by Island friends of many years now. We sit and stand, bow our heads, and pray together, as Jews across the world are doing, too. It is a miracle to me, this connection to past and present, even as I worry about the rise in anti-Semitism that seems more virulent every year.
Jews are supposed to pray as a congregation. At the Hebrew Center, we are encouraged on Yom Kippur to wear white clothing, symbolic of the plain white shrouds we will be buried in. The sea of white feels magical, spiritual, beautiful. The order of the prayers, with commentaries from rabbis and scholars written below, entices me to study and learn. I love the attention to nuance.
There will be a special service on Yom Kippur afternoon to say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. I will stand with the congregation to pray for my parents, Edward and Cora Smith, and for my brother, Mark. They are always with me.