Howard Lovy | Longreads | September 2017 | 17 minutes (4,225 words)
It was raining the morning of October 6, 1973 — the day before my 8th birthday, and the day of the Yom Kippur War — so they put a very long awning in front of Adas Yeshurun, the Orthodox synagogue in Augusta, Georgia. The canopy ran along the sidewalk so worshipers coming to Yom Kippur services could avoid getting their good shul clothes wet. I looked up at the awning and read, with some puzzlement, the one word on the front: “Elliot.”
Elliot? Very confusing. Elliot was also my baby brother’s name. I gazed up at the letters at the front of the rain canopy as water dripped off the sides. “Elliot.” Huh.
Decades later, when I remembered this day because of its significance in Jewish history, it would dawn on me that Elliot must have been the name of the company that made the awning, or perhaps the family that sponsored the awning (as everything in the synagogue had a sponsor), not the name of the object, itself. But, for years, whenever I would see a rain canopy, I’d call it an “Elliot.”
I contemplated every part of the “Elliot” for a long time as we shuffled behind older congregants on our way into services. I counted the number of poles holding it up, the canopy sections, and the number of people keeping dry beneath it. I did not mind the slow shuffle. I was hoping it would mask my odd gait. It was the latest of what my family would call “Howie’s habits.” This particular ritual involved the need to place both feet even with one another every six steps. It’s not that it felt right to perform the ritual. It’s that it simply felt wrong if I did not perform it, like a phantom limb that needed to be scratched. I’d count six steps, then stop in stride and make my feet even. If there was a person behind me, he might slam into me. If I walked too fast, I might topple when I had to halt. My father, a Vietnam veteran, had mistaken it for “standing at attention,” military style. Later, this particular habit would be embellished by my father into “Howie would stand at attention and salute.” But, I never saluted. A couple of years later, on a hike near the Grand Canyon, I’d be sent back to our motor home in tears because I’d slowed down my two older brothers and Dad with this “standing at attention and saluting” habit. My dad would later amend it to, “And then Howie would stop so suddenly, he’d fall from the momentum and roll down a hill.” Ridiculous. Every third or even sixth step, I’d bring my feet together. That’s it.
So, slowly walking and standing at attention, approaching the Elliot in front of the shul, there was nothing else to do but stare at the rain and think about how hungry I was. This Yom Kippur, I was fasting. I didn’t have to, really, until after my Bar Mitzvah five years in the future, but I enjoyed the discipline, like holding my breath as long as I could. I was already hungry. Tomorrow would be my birthday, and there would at least be a cake, making the fast all the more desperate. There was an appeal to being this uncomfortable, to obsessively resisting food. The hungrier I became, the more determined the fast. Obsessiveness was my superpower, if only it could have been directed toward good things. There was no doubt that God was watching me, testing me, to see how I’d perform the fast. God was always testing my will. Can I stop nodding my head for the next sixty minutes? The more I thought about this test, the stronger the urge to nod my head. I’d often fail. The solution was to just think of something else. So, that’s what I did.
The rain felt wonderful as it poured off my neck, which was choked by my top button and clip-on shul tie. I counted the rain drops dripping off the side of the Elliot. Water had pooled at the top and there was a portion where it would release just a few drops at a time. Three in a row. Then pause. Then three in a row again. It was wonderfully comforting. Three is divisible into six two times. Six is the best number. But so is two. Three is great because two of them make six. I could never make anybody understand this, though. If I ate more than one piece of candy, it had to be either three or six. One time, my brother Jordy, the future doctor, caught me popping six vitamin C chewables into my mouth. He gave me a lecture about how taking more than one per day will not make me healthier and would only make me pee bright yellow. I knew that, but it was OK for him to think I was ignorant of these basic facts. I’d rather he think I was so stupid I didn’t know that, than for my brother to know the truth about my thing with the number six.
Finally, after walking a perfect six steps to the Elliot, I almost reached the dry pavement. Six was my favorite number. But then as I contemplated the last necessary steps, I thought, six is divisible by three, then two, then one. I realized, the remainder of the path could be divided into any number of combined distances. After that, my mind began to loop, my eyes felt like cartoon pinwheels, hypnotized, and I stopped. I was one day shy of 8, but I was musing on the nature of the infinite, how you can keep dividing any distance into smaller portions — 1/6,1/12, 1/24, and on and on until infinity. How exactly can I arrive anywhere when the units of measurement between destinations can be made smaller and smaller, and multiplied endlessly like that? How can anybody arrive anywhere?
I did not know until decades later that this was one of ancient Greek philosopher Zeno’s mind games, the one called the dichotomy paradox. Zeno argued the distance between any one point and another was infinite because, say, once you’d gone half-way, you could divide the remaining distance into one-half, and then one-half of that, ad infinitum, until there were still countless half-distances between you and the end. The paradox drove a mathematician or two to madness. I can understand that. There is an initial euphoria when thinking of infinites, and then a deep depression follows when you think that it is something beyond understanding, or worse, something that makes the world of “things” meaningless.
This Yom Kippur, I was fasting. I didn’t have to, really, until after my Bar Mitzvah five years in the future, but I enjoyed the discipline, like holding my breath as long as I could.
According to Zeno’s logic, nothing should really exist because it could never be finished — you could keep halving the remaining portion to be done, so that there was always more. To his mind, nobody could ever go anywhere, either, since the distance to the end could be halved and halved and halved, so there were always more halves between you and the your destination. This paradox has always given me both a fright and a thrill. My stomach churns as if on a roller coaster if I think about it correctly. Somewhere in the infinite gap between the numbers, it seems, perhaps, God can be found.
* * *
My brother Jordy snapped me out of my mathematical reverie by smirking and pushing me forward. Unstuck, I took one last step, treading the infinite to reach the Elliot.
And here, at last, we were sheltered from the rain. We had been stuck in front of my friend Ron’s great-grandfather, who was shuffling at what one would not call warp speed. He had an ancient, wrinkled, tiny face that nodded a great deal, like it was about to roll off his neck. I had never seen anybody that old. A great-grandfather. I could not imagine any of my relatives being that old. Me? I had no great-grandfather nor a great-grandmother, except some vague idea that these “greats” had been killed before my Grandpa Joe came to this country from a place where all were Hungry. That’s what they always called it. Hungry. Only a few hours into the Yom Kippur fast, and I was in Hungry, too.
Then I looked up at Ron’s great-grandfather’s face and saw the water dripping down his cheek. I realized, it did not come from the rain. I looked around and noticed other congregants in tears, too. That’s when I decided to tune in to what my oldest brother, Danny, and my dad were muttering about. I only picked up key words and did not quite understand. “Arabs.” “Sneak Attack.” “Israel.” “Losing.” “Moshe Dayan.”
I had the appearance of being attentive because of my head-nodding tic. My father said to my brother. “See? Howie even agrees.”
“He doesn’t,” Danny said. “He doesn’t know what we’re talking about. It’s just Howie’s habit.”
I turned away in shame. To me, the head nodding, the clucking, the shoulder shrugging, the sniffing, the spinning, and repeated touching of objects … all of it, all my rituals, they were God, or a test by God, a test that I failed every single hour of every day. God tested me to see if I could stop it, and I could not. But if I could use the obsessive side of the obsessive-compulsive partnership, then I could obsessively summon up the willpower to resist engaging in the noises and tics. Wasn’t that what God did to the heroes in the Bible?
The rabbi once said in a sermon that Moses must have been staring at the burning bush for hours before he determined that it was not being consumed. “Think about it,” he said. “Have you ever stared for that long at a burning object? It could take hours to see that the fire was not consuming it. Moses must have been a very contemplative man.” Well, if you ask me, it was an obsessive commitment. I know how Moses’ mind worked. Not that I was Moses, but I understood how he could stare at a fire for hours and hours before noticing that it was not being consumed. It was because there are infinite steps between a bush and ashes. Out of that knowledge, God appears. This is why I needed to fast on Yom Kippur even though I did not have to, under Jewish law, until after my 13th birthday. How much could I deny myself? How much could I use my obsessiveness for self-control, rather than giving in to any and every impulse (“Howie’s habits.”)? This is what God wanted, for me to use my brain’s weird wiring to serve Him — just as surely as Moses did as he gazed obsessively at a burning bush.
All of Judaism, it seemed to me, the rituals, the chants, the strict dietary laws, was created and enforced by somebody like me, with obsessive habits and tics.
Despite my father mistaking my head-nodding for an agreement, rather than the tic it was, I had very little understanding of what was happening now. I saw grown men crying, especially the older ones. I entered the shul with my family, and the sound of the rain transformed into excited conversation, mingled with the muttering of prayer coming from the sanctuary.
This particular ritual involved the need to place both feet even with one another every six steps. It simply felt wrong if I did not perform it, like a phantom limb that needed to be scratched.
Here, in Augusta, Georgia, deep in the heart of the South, where Jews were not considered to be “white” by many of our racist neighbors, we had just learned that war had broken out in Israel, and Israel was losing. It would come to be known as the first day of the Yom Kippur War. This, Ron’s great-grandfather said through his tears, was “bad for the Jews.”
We did not go directly into the sanctuary, for some reason. Instead, my father and older brothers spotted “Mr. T.,” short for Mr. Teplitsky, my Hebrew School teacher. Long before The A Team’s Laurence Tureaud came to be known by that name, my teacher had a vanity license plate: “Mr T.”
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I think the Hebrew he taught was the ancient, dead kind from the Torah and prayer books, because when he tried to speak it conversationally, it was painfully halting. That’s what he was doing now. There were two Israelis visiting Augusta and attending Adas Yeshurun. Now, they were nervous and eager for word from back home. Mr T. was talking to them in Hebrew, then translating what they said to my dad and other onlookers. Every other word, though, was “ahhhh,” as Mr. T. searched his brain for the right word. The Israelis looked around the room nervously, as Mr. T struggled through the Hebrew.
Mr. T, translating, told us the Israelis wanted to go back home to help their country in its hour of need. Every passing hour of this new war brought new anxiety to our Israeli visitors and to all the congregants. The older ones, though, like Ron’s great-grandfather, seemed to take it harder, as if they knew something about the fate of Jews who were surrounded by enemies.
* * *
We walked into the sanctuary for services. My stomach hurt a little, not only because of my Yom Kippur fast, but because it was my turn to sing Yigdal, a hymn exalting God. Each week, one kid took a turn singing Yigdal toward the end of the service. It was my random misfortune to have my turn during Yom Kippur, the one service that every single Jew attends. Adas Yeshurun was packed. Adding to my distress was the obvious air of tension among the congregants. The Jewish community of Augusta, Georgia, was sitting in shul, but their minds and hearts were in Israel, suffering. I was suffering, too, as I pored through my copy of Yigdal. We’d all chanted it so often that reciting it was a matter of muscle memory by now. I could chant it in my sleep. But with the Yom Kippur crowd so huge, there was no telling where my voice would go or which “habit” or tic would manifest to help me calm my nerves.
In my anxious state, I played the yarmulke game. It’s a simple game, really. I would slowly lean my head back until my yarmulke fell off my head and into the row behind me. Oh, the thrill of it, to be “accidentally” without a yarmulke inside the sanctuary. You never knew what could happen next. Plagues of locust? Slaying of the first born? But it never stayed off my head for long. An old person usually tapped me on my shoulder quickly to hand my yarmulke back for quick replacement. I could usually get away with doing this twice or maybe three times before the angry looks came from the row behind. But being without a yarmulke was thrilling, it gave me a brief feeling of freedom. I wondered if streakers felt the same thrill — like the ones I heard about on the news so often, those men (usually men, for some reason) running across football fields completely naked. Maybe they felt that free. I was, as yet, too young to understand completely what a sexual thrill was, but I was beginning to have an idea. Well, a very good idea if it had anything to do with the way I felt when I gazed across the playground at my friend Elizabeth. In my 8-year-old mind, sexuality seemed somehow related to the thrill of something exposed, like my head, yarmulke-less, in the Adas Yeshurun sanctuary.
All of Judaism, it seemed to me, the rituals, the chants, the strict dietary laws, was created and enforced by somebody like me, with obsessive habits and tics.
When I tired of the yarmulke game, I rehearsed Yigdal in my head. And then puzzled, again, at the English translation. It is a disturbing, thrilling song. Roughly, the lyrics translate into how we should exalt the “living God,” but then describes him in a confusing way that is unlike anything living at all. The song says that God does not have a body, that he is everywhere and exists beyond time. He can read our thoughts, of course, but he also knows how everything ends before it even exists. I had thought that people were made in God’s image, but according to Yigdal, God had no image.
Somehow, I understood this. The God of Yigdal was not the God of my Sunday School coloring books, the guy with the beard who always seemed to have a stern look on his face and pointed at something he disapproved of down below. No, God was a force, an idea, a vague mist that I thought only I knew of. All my friends saw God as the old bearded man. I saw the problem, the paradox, of the infinites. Apparently so did the writer of a prayer in a dusty old book.
According to Yigdal, this song that I was forced to sing by the cantor, God is much like the paradox I had experienced walking toward the Elliot. Things are not there, there is no way to get anywhere, yet we do. It is impossible to travel from one point to another because there are infinite steps in between. Nothing can exist because there are infinite spaces between the atoms. But, somehow, God knows the destination, knows what the object will look like, before it even begins to be. God is in a constant state of action. He is always willing things into being there. If he did not, we would all float into infinity. Was this why I was compelled to stand still every few steps? I suspected it was.
God was a power that I was quite familiar with inside my twitching muscles, my obsessions, my “habits.” God didn’t only exist inside the infinite spaces in between the numbers, he caused the numbers to exist in the first place. I understood this because it was in these spaces, I believed, that he caused my strange tics.
Did God compel me to make these noises, perform these rituals, because he needed me to? Were they tests to see if I could resist them? Or did he plant these obsessions in my head so that I could understand him better than my friends, who were still stuck with the cartoon vision of a white-bearded God?
This was not me doubting that God existed. Of course he did. I’d had enough proof. Once, I had expressed doubt that the prophet Elijah really went door to door on Pesach, sipping wine out of every cup. I knew that the shaking of Elijah’s cup when the door opened was caused by my father’s hand. But I believed that another time, God had showed me that Elijah was real, when I saw his shadow moving, in his chariot, on the side of my grandparents’ condo complex in Deerfield Beach, Florida. I have always kept that sight a secret, since nobody would likely believe me. Certainly my brothers would not. In hindsight, what I’d thought was the shadow of Elijah on his chariot had very likely been a palm tree swaying in the evening breeze, its shadow magnified by lights on the lawn that illuminated the white condo building. But at the time, I took this Passover sighting as proof of God’s existence.
I also knew that God existed because he always reacted to my specific prayers. It’s not that he granted me exactly what I wanted. In fact, he never did. He always picked a middle ground between what I desired most and desired least. In this way, I could control events by controlling my thoughts. It’s why I gave up even wishing for things, since the wish, in itself, would have an impact on the outcome. A couple of years earlier, when I was five or six, I wished for my grandma from Toronto, who always arrived with presents, to give me a bag of toy army men just like my older brothers, Danny and Jordy, had. I wished for it very hard. I would hear my two big brothers in their bedroom, setting up elaborate war scenarios. I wished for my own army men; I prayed for it. Instead, my grandma got me an Etch-A-Sketch. I told her thank you, of course, but I scolded myself on the inside. This was God punishing me for coveting the army men so badly. But this gift from my golden-hearted maternal grandmother was also a compromise, since my older brothers thought the Etch-a-Sketch was very cool, and in fact they could do more with it than I was capable of. I could never twist the knobs perfectly to draw any kind of picture, or even write my name. My “habits” would compel me to twist a knob in another direction to even things out, or to turn each knob an equal number of times, or simply touch it with my left, then my right. My obsessive need to touch, to turn these knobs in certain combinations meant that what I actually “drew” on the screen were scribbles. There was too much symmetry built into the Etch-A-Sketch to make it useful to me. My fingers craved symmetrical touching.
Here, in the heart of the South, where Jews were not considered to be “white” by many of our racist neighbors, we had just learned that war had broken out in Israel, and Israel was losing.
So, my brothers essentially took over my Etch-A-Sketch, too, and I was happy they did. It was useless to me. I understood this “middle ground” between what I wanted and what I got as proof of God’s existence. This happened to me all the time. In this case, God punished me for wanting the army men too badly. My brothers’ leaving me out of their army-men game made me so obsessively jealous that one day I snuck in with scissors and cut the heads off of all the figures. Cowboys, Indians, army men in all positions. All headless now. I was getting even not with my brothers, but with a God who would mock me with a useless Etch-A-Sketch that my obsessive habits would not allow me to properly use.
So, yes, I knew God. I knew the God of Yigdal, the God who was a force that lived between the numbers, who knew the outcomes of all before anything began, who knew exactly what I wanted and messed with me, who picked on me personally because he knew before I got the Etch-a-Sketch that I would find it useless, thanks to this affliction he gave me. But I did not hate Him. I saw God as a natural power in the universe, and one that I could someday learn to control with my thoughts. It was my fault for coveting the army men, for wishing for it. God was telling me to use my obsessions, my compulsions, for self-control in thought and action. It was going to be hard, very hard. God was in a superposition between the army men and the Etch-A-Sketch, and I could control what happened.
* * *
I looked around the shul and I saw Ron’s grandfather crying, Mr. T whispering to his Israeli guests, concerned looks on all faces, and I knew what I had to do. I closed my eyes and tried my very best to not wish for Israeli victory against the Arabs. I knew Israel was losing, so my strong desire for Israel to win, for Mr. T to smile again through his bushy beard, for Ron’s great-grandfather to stop crying, would only be answered with something “in the middle” of winning and losing. But whatever that middle ground was could be just as horrible. It was best for me to not have any impact on these events at all. So I drained my mind of all thought. I stared obsessively at the decorations on the ark that held the Torah. I cleared my mind of all prayers and wishes. Somewhere, I hoped that would be enough for us to win the Yom Kippur War.
I looked around the shul and I saw Ron’s grandfather crying, Mr. T whispering to his Israeli guests, concerned looks on all faces.
The stakes were clearly higher than usual. We were not talking about Etch-A-Sketch vs. army men. I wondered if Grandpa — who to me was almost God himself, and who surely knew God — had had to control his thoughts the way I do in order to survive in that place where everybody was Hungry, where everybody hated Jews. I would have asked him, but I was afraid he wouldn’t understand. Although he was proud that there was a mystical rabbi in our ancestry, the rabbi in Prague who made a clay man, a golem, come alive, he also didn’t believe that it had really happened. “It’s just a legend,” he said. But, perhaps, I thought, when he was 8 years old and hiding from Hungry Jew haters, he, too, believed in the magical thinking that controlled God. Someday, I thought maybe I would ask him.
My turn came, I stood up, I sang, “Yigdal Elochim Chai …” Flawlessly. At the end, I gazed up from my book and many in the congregation were in tears. Perhaps it was from hunger, or from news of the Yom Kippur War, but I chose to believe they were crying because here was an 8-year-old boy (well, 8 years old on his birthday the next day) who not only sang, but truly understood the deeper meaning behind Yigdal. I closed my book and walked back to my pew. I arrived just seconds later, but I knew that the steps between the bima and my seat were truly infinite.
* * *
Howard Lovy is a writer and editor who has committed random acts of journalism for thirty years. He lives in Traverse City, Michigan.
Editor: Sari Botton