Today is the Birthday of the World: A Rosh Hashanah Story
“Today is the birthday of the world!”
Jews everywhere know those words, “Hayom harat olam,” today is the birthday of the world. We recite those words every Rosh Hashanah.
But no one has ever said those words the way my mother did, and no one has ever heard them the way the kids attending the children’s High Holidays services my mother conducted heard them.
My mother would stand in front of her congregation, a group of children eight-years-old and younger, like a prophet addressing the village elders. Her perfect posture, high heels, and elegant hat, standard for every synagogue outfit, transformed her five feet, five inches into an imposing figure.
Her eyes would blaze, her hands would grip the sides of the podium as she leaned forward and said those words, slowly, emphatically, in her strong, beautiful, classically trained voice. You could hear a pin drop.
Even after several years of services, it had the desired effect on each child, along with the handful of parents who sat in the back, unable to resist the splendid theater that was Mrs. Golkow’s children’s service during the 1960s.
The author and her mother
Because I was her daughter and sidekick, from an early age I got to assist before and during services. I’d distribute prayer books, help lead the singing, open and close the Ark. I was a painfully shy kid, self-conscious and easily embarrassed, so one might think this would have been tough for me.
But my mother had taught me to celebrate and love Judaism as she did, and taking part in her service meant so much to me I was willing to battle my demons.
Besides, as long as I was standing by her side, I found I could be brave facing all those kids.
So each week I did my part, and had a great vantage point from which to observe not only my mother in action, but her impact on us as well. I watched and listened, and saw those attentive faces. I was every bit as mesmerized as the rest.
We all know how difficult it can be for children to sit still and be quiet, especially when they’re dressed in their best. They fidget. They tug at their clothes. They slouch; they kick their feet, they pout and whine. And they start in with each other – poking, shoving, and hissing.
But nothing like that ever took place during my mother’s services. Every single child sat still; none of us acted up. Every single child paid attention, followed the service, joined in when it was time. No one misbehaved.
Understand: It wasn’t from fear. No one was afraid of my mother. It was because everyone wanted to know what was going on.
Those of us who knew the prayers, who knew when to stand and when to sit, wanted to show our knowledge. Those who were still learning were eager to take part. And everyone wanted to please Mrs. Golkow.
Besides, her services were fun. She told stories and answered questions. She didn’t get impatient or lose her temper. But more important than any of that, she showed us how much fun she was having.
You only had to look at her to know how much the service meant to her – how important Judaism, and G-D, and the Torah were to her, and how much she loved teaching children about them.
Synagogue was a joy to my mother, and her joy and enthusiasm spread to her congregation.
My mother knew how to talk to children. During her services, she explained everything so that even the youngest kid could understand, but she never talked down to any of us. Her services followed the traditional Shabbat and High Holiday morning services, and although they were condensed versions they included most of the major prayers.
She put things in terms six and seven-year-olds could grasp, and invited everyone to participate at their level. Yom Kippur was “I’m Sorry Day.” She’d encourage us to apologize to friends for fighting with them, or to parents for not cleaning our rooms (with a sidelong glance at me as she said it).
Before the Torah service, she would tell us all to sit up, straighten our ties or skirts, and fix our hair because a special visitor was about to arrive. When a couple of kids became a little too eager to reach out and kiss the Torah during its procession, she said:
“It’s like the way sometimes you run up to your mother, hug and kiss her, and tell her how much you love her, and she says to you ‘That’s all very well. But if you really want to show how much you love me, you’ll do the things I ask.’ Well, it’s the same with G-D and the Torah. It’s all very well to kiss the Torah, but it’s more important to learn what it teaches and to follow those teachings. G-D would much rather see you do that than watch you shove each other just so you can kiss the Torah. It looks as if you’re not paying attention to what it tells us.”
That lesson made such an impression on me that to this day I hang back and let others kiss the Torah during the processional.
And for Rosh Hashanah – the birthday of the world? My mother would make sure that someone came to the service to blow the Shofar, and her Shofar service has stayed with me all these years. As a roomful of children, including me, watched wide-eyed, hanging on her every word, she described the three Shofar sounds to us this way:
- Tekiah – It’s saying ‘Listen! Listen to the sound of the Shofar!’
- Sh’varim – A low note, and a high note. It means whether you are very young, or very old, everyone is important in the eyes of G-D!
- Teruah – A set of short notes. It’s saying, “Pay attention to the little things in life!”
I can still hear her wonderful voice saying that. I can still see her arms outstretched. I can still feel the shiver down my spine.
My mother ended every service the same way. We’d stand and she would recite the priestly blessing, in Hebrew and in English:
May the LORD bless you and keep you –
יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
May the LORD cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you –
יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
May the LORD lift up His face unto you and grant you peace –
יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
– to which we would all say “Amen.” Then she would give out candy and send her congregation on their way.
I can’t imagine a better introduction to Judaism or prayer than the one my mother gave the children of West Oak Lane Jewish Community Center. To this day I meet people who are eager to tell me how much they loved her, how much they learned from her, what happy memories they have of her.
They say the lessons she taught them still resonate in their lives, and inform the way they practice Judaism in their homes and teach its observances and practices to their children. It lifts my heart to hear their stories, and makes me proud to be her daughter.
And although she’s been gone many years, I still her voice when I daven; I still feel her presence in every synagogue I enter.
May we all find joy on Rosh Hashanah 2017 and in the New Year. May our days be filled with love and laughter. May we make new friends, learn new things, and find new meaning in our lives. May we cherish the memories of those we have lost, and dedicate ourselves to living lives worthy of their praise.
Sheva Golkow lives just outside of Philadelphia in Glenside, PA. She works as an education specialist for a government agency, which is just as glamorous as it sounds. Sheva likes old books, loud music, and making her husband laugh.