Magazine article The New Yorker

Counting Pages

Magazine article The New Yorker

Counting Pages

Article excerpt

As a young girl, I spent more time outside synagogues than in them. Services were long, and I always found some excuse to get away. I remember the Quonset hut where my family went to services when we first moved to Honolulu. The building looked like a white cylinder half buried in the ground. I remember borrowed space in a Unitarian church, an elegant old house with woven mats covering hardwood floors. A weathered tree house sat in the branches of a large tree in the garden. I'd leave my sandals on the grass and climb the ladder to read Wizard of Oz books.

My parents did expect me to participate at least some of the time. During the High Holidays, I amused myself by hanging upside down on my chair. I'd pretend I was a bat and stare at the appropriately named Mrs. Batkin's feet. Then my mother would whisper, "Doesn't this day mean anything to you?"

I was a daydreamer and a page counter. On Yom Kippur, I kept my finger on the last page of the evening service. Only seventy pages to go. Fifty! Maybe now I could get up and make a trip to the water fountain. I was expert at every diversion. For some years, our traditional minyan prayed on Saturday mornings at Honolulu's Temple Emanu-El. The Temple had a library with a slot in the door for returning books. I'd thread my long, thin arm through the opening and unlock the door from the inside. Once in, I'd sit at the dark conference table and read. Mr. Fischel, the volunteer librarian, had ordered a set of children's biographies--beautifully written lives of Jewish luminaries, including Sholem Aleichem, Rebecca Gratz, Henrietta Szold, Emma Lazarus, Albert Einstein, and Lillian Wald.

Was I becoming a little Unitarian myself? A secular humanist? I heard singing in the distance--"Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, Adonai tseva'ot, melo khol ha'arets kevodo. Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of Hosts; His presence fills all the earth"--as I was curled up in a library chair discovering when Lillian Wald had founded the visiting-nurses' movement. Sometimes on Rosh Hashanah I'd come down with terrible allergy attacks. Apparently, I was allergic to mold spores in the Temple's air-conditioning system. More than once, my mother whisked me home, and I would spend the rest of the day convalescing on the couch with "The Complete Sherlock Holmes,"instead of praying to be inscribed in the book of life. …

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