S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
 December 6, 1947: 42-45

For the children of Providence Street, Worcester, where I grew up, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was a tremendous event. We used to look forward to it with a kind of morbid fascination. It meant a holiday from school, but it had no other festive connotation, and Yom Kippur Eve—Erev Yom Kippur—gave promise only of an interminable night and day of prayer and fasting for those of thirteen and over, and an acute intimation of doom for everybody. To us younger children, it seemed as if the purpose of the Day was to stave off, if possible, for one more year, by a twenty-four-hour assuagement of an implacable Deity, the incidence of all sorts of horrid fates. We believed that whether we would survive the next twelve months or not was definitely to be decided on this day of days. Thus the atmosphere of Yom Kippur Eve had all the tension of a murder trial at the moment when the jury comes back to announce its verdict. But we, of course, never got the verdict. We could only petition the Judge and hope for the best. Everything about the Day was awesome, and the ceremonies of its Eve, which began before sunset, were a fateful overture to the solemnities of the Day itself.

My family occupied one of the three floors of a wooden tenement house directly across from the Providence Street Synagogue. An hour or so before sunset—at which time the service across the street was to begin—my father, who was learned, mystical, and devout, would gather the family together for such propitiatory rites as could be performed at home. We would stand around him in a little semicircle while he, intoning prayers in Hebrew, waved over his head, and ours, a live fowl. I did not then know that this rite was a pagan survival from a period now lost in the mists of antiquity, but I have learned since that a somewhat similar primitive religious practice survives among the Catholics in Haiti, where a cock is on certain occasions sacrificed to the Virgin Mary. On Providence Street, in my childhood, the bewildered bird was sacrificed only symbolically. It was preserved for its immolation on the following day, when it was served up at the dinner that broke the long fast of Yom Kippur. Our less orthodox Jewish neighbors waved coins about instead of live birds, and the money was later given to charity. A popular sum, to use in the ritual, especially among the poor, was eighteen cents, because in Hebrew the letters that stand for "ten" and "eight," put together, mean "life," and thus were a strong nudge to the Lord in the direction of clemency. The attempt to beguile the Almighty with a pun was perhaps naive, but it persisted. In our house, as I've said, we parried Fate with a fowl. It was borne in upon me at an early age that behind this symbolic, cabalistic ceremony was the idea that the Deity, in an absent-minded moment, might transfer the fate he had in store for one of us to the sacrificial bird, thereby reducing the potential family mortality in the forthcoming year by at least one. That such an escape was recognized as an outside chance, at the very best, is attested to by the fact that the ceremony didn't visibly cheer anybody up.

By sundown, all of Providence Street had gathered in the synagogue to remain until the evening ceremonies ended, two hours later. A few of the most devout stayed on through the night, praying, but the greater number went home to bed and returned the next morning at eight for the ceremonies of the Day itself, which continued until sunset. The fast for the adults was rigorous; not even a drop of water must pass the lips of the penitents from sunset till sunset. We children of less than thirteen did not have to keep the fast and most of us had another windfall—a recess at about eleven o'clock in the morning, during the half-hour prayer for the dead. It was forbidden for anyone whose parents were both still alive to be present during this prayer and, naturally, this gave the greater number of us youngsters an automatic respite. Any adults whose parents were living also left the synagogue at this time, but they stayed just outside, presumably meditating upon the mercy that excluded them from the building itself. We children, though, knew only that we had a half hour to ourselves, and sometimes we roamed far and wide, forgetting that we must be back the moment the prayer was over. It was, of course, mandatory that we be present for the rest of the day, especially during the mighty prayer that was, in a sense, the dramatic climax of the long service and expressed the essence of the occasion. This was the dread and beautiful "Unsanneh Tokef Kedushas" ("We Will Express the Mighty Holiness of This Day"). I can still hear its awesome Hebrew cadences. In unison the congregation introduced it:

We will express the mighty holiness of this day, for it is one of awe and dread. Thereon is Thy dominion exalted and Thy throne is established in mercy, and Thou sittest thereon in truth. Verily, it is Thou alone who are judge and arbiter, who knowest all and art witness; Thou writest down and settest the seal. Thou recordest and tellest; yea, Thou rememberest the things forgotten. Thou unfoldest the records, and the deeds therein inscribed proclaim themselves; for lo! the seal of every man's hand is set thereto. The great trumpet is sounded; the still small voice is heard; the angels are dismayed; fear and trembling seize hold of them as they proclaim: Behold the Day of Judgment! The host of heaven is to be arraigned in judgment. For in Thine eyes even they are not pure: and all who are about to enter the world dost Thou cause to pass before Thee as a flock of sheep.

For each member of the congregation this was a climactic personal prayer and everyone chanted it fervently, the cantor's voice sometimes rising above the others in awesome coloratura. The prayer continued:

As a shepherd seeks out his flock and causes them to pass beneath his crook, so dost Thou cause to pass and number every living soul, appointing the measure of every creature's life and decreeing his destiny.

On the first day of the year it is inscribed, and on the Day of Atonement the decree is sealed, how many shall pass away and how many shall he born; who shall live and who shall die, who at the measure of man's day and who before it; who shall perish by fire and who by water; who by the sword, who by wild beasts, who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning; who shall have rest and who shall go wandering, who shall be tranquil and who shall he harassed, who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted; who shall become poor and who shall wax rich; who shall he brought low and who shall he exalted.

Before I even entered the synagogue, I began to visualize what was going on Above on the Day of Atonement: the All-Seeing, like a celestial Actuary, a kind of immense Mosaic statistician, graving prophetic casualties onto some vast double-entry ledger of stone, with a quill that was a gleaming and pointed pillar of quartz. The short walk across the street to the synagogue after the feeble ruse with the fowl was like a stroll across the Bridge of Sighs. Descending doom was already upon us; we did not know precisely what it was we had done or how we had sinned, but we knew that we had to pay for it. It was the vagueness of the mass guilt that gave it its special, terrorizing quality. For me, a macabre and scary detail of the general atmosphere was that my father, before he piloted the family across to the service, would put on an all-enveloping white robe called a kittel. All the other elders of the synagogue did the same. I learned very young that these robes were the shrouds prescribed by tradition for the final journey, and so exigent was the sense of the life-and-death verdicts to be recorded on this day that the mortuary costume seemed to me not at all unnatural.

For us younger children, there was, as I have said, an oasis in the desert of uninterrupted prayer, a delicious escape in the forenoon. Paradoxically, this interlude, for which we could hardly wait, was for our elders the most intimately felt and mournful of the whole day. It was called Yizkor—the Memorial for the Dead—and was a period of prayer for those against whom the Almighty had, in the past year or long since, made a punitive entry on his ledger. The younger element blessed the theologian who had made the ruling that excluded most of us. To be free for a space, and to escape awhile the awful weight of an adverse balance piling up against us in the Judgment Book was almost too good to be true. With the threnodies of our mourning elders echoing in our ears, we, the young and unbereaved, made joyously for the street.

Once we were outdoors, our sense of release was almost unbearable, and to work off some of our energy we always hurried off "down the line," as we called it, down the main street of town, in a parade of liberty. Down Providence Street hill we ran, past the Providence Street School, and through Grafton to Front Street. In the winy October forenoon, with the air fermenting and mellowing in the warm sun, the vigilance of the Actuary seemed somehow relaxed, and the world was more intensely ours because we had lately been so confined. Yom Kippur did not decimate the pedestrian population of Worcester's streets, as it was said to do in New York. There were the usual people about, but they had the anemic, unzestful look of the unliberated. They walked Providence and Front Streets as if it were quite commonplace to be doing so. We were always mystified by their casualness.

On one of these occasions, when I was perhaps nine or ten years old, we had run down the hill and were walking happily and without objective on Front Street. We passed Horticultural Hail, a building we knew well because it was often hired for Providence Street weddings. Swinging adventurously around the corner into Main Street, we were presently abreast of the dark Corinthian facade of Mechanics' Hall. Now, Mechanics' Hall was a very different cup of tea from Horticultural Hall. It was august and forbidding, while Horticultural Hall was lightsome. You couldn't conceivably be married in Mechanics' Hall. It was reserved for the séances of the visiting great. (Later, I was to hear there such virtuosi as Paderewski, Elman, William Jennings Bryan, and Theodore Roosevelt.) Ordinarily, it would never have occurred to us to broach this reserved interior, but as we approached it that morning, some rather forlorn-looking people were straggling in. A sophisticated and slightly older contemporary, Allie Price, scouted around among the stragglers and reported to us that "some feller Debs" was inside and was going to make a free speech. He was running for President and, for nothing, we could hear him speak. We joined the seemingly indifferent electorate and found ourselves presently in the dim, galleried auditorium. All alone on the platform sat a tall, gaunt, bald-headed man with a prominent, beaked nose. On the wall behind him hung three enormous oil paintings of New England worthies in white wigs and knee breeches, who appeared to be looking down with frigid disapproval at the candidate. The hall was immense, the audience tiny and scattered. At first, we boys sat timidly in the back. But as a few more unimpressive people wandered in and sat in the front rows, we also moved forward circumspectly, a row or two at a time, until, when Debs rose to speak, we were down under the platform and literally at the speaker's feet.

Though I cannot remember a single word that Debs said that morning to his apathetic audience and I never saw or heard him again, I am sure that this chance visit gave to all my later life an orientation it would otherwise not have had—a bias in favor of those who had suffered from cruelty or callousness. This was not because of any specific argument or thought that I carried away from that meeting. It was simply because of the overwhelming impression that Debs' personality made on me. Most of all, I remember his intensity and what seemed to me to be his quivering sensitiveness to pain. The latter showed in his eyes, voice, and gestures. I remember his getting up and starting to speak. He wore a baggy, unpressed, cheap-looking gray sack suit, a shirt with a soft collar, and a black four-in-hand tie. As he began to talk, I was suddenly seized with a fear that we wouldn't get back to the synagogue in time to hear the "Unsanneh Tokef," a lapse that would be simply unthinkable. The whole procedure—Debs' presence here as well as my own—seemed to me so grotesquely lacking in a sense of proportion as to verge on the insane. That Debs or anybody else could be troubling himself about as transitory a bubble as the Presidency of the United States when, only a mile or so away, an eternal and far graver decision was even then being held in the balance for or against him was only less remarkable for its bravado than that I myself, in that dread instant, could be sitting there listening to him. I felt that I must get up at once and hurry back to the synagogue. If Debs was foolhardy and wanted to run the risk, all right, but I couldn't be involved in so reckless a gamble. Nevertheless, I sat on there, torn between the attraction exercised by the man and the horrid necessity of getting back to the synagogue. There was something about Debs' delivery that I have never encountered since. He was tall and angular, and he leaned far over the edge of the platform, as if to get close to each one of his listeners. His arms reached out, as if to touch them. But what must have held me there was the growing conviction that he, too, was up against an antagonist, as powerful as the great Judge, and that the struggle here also was for life or death, that the issue was crucial and the hope of victory infinitesimal. On a different plane, the issue was as real as the issue on the hill, except that there, in the synagogue, the hope was in petition, whereas here there was some kind of struggle the scope and the intensity of which I could only feel, without in the least grasping it.

Oddly enough, on a much later Yom Kippur, when I was in my teens, I went into Mechanics' Hall to hear Woodrow Wilson, who was there on the same errand as Debs'. (People seemed always to be running for President on Yom Kippur.) On that later occasion, the visit was much less tense; I was already somewhat emancipated and I did not feel as I entered the hall that I was running the gantlet between two rows of avenging archangels. Wilson, I remember, was introduced by Dudley Field Malone, whose enthusiasm for his hero was so extravagant and rhetorical that when Wilson finally spoke, it seemed to me that he let his sponsor down grievously. Malone was so much the louder and funnier of the two that I wondered why he wasn't the candidate. The audience was as small as it had been for Debs. Wilson wore a gray business suit, just as Debs had, but Woodrow's coat and trousers had a sharp, Princetonian crease. With Debs, the issue—whatever it was—seemed to transcend the contest; Wilson's talk was confined to the contest, and he was so colorless that his chances of winning it seemed laughably remote. Malone possibly; Wilson certainly not. The fact is that Debs had become for me the standard of reference, by which his successors invariably suffered—even William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt, who spoke at evening meetings to crowds that filled the hall. But neither of these speakers seemed to be engaged in a contest as formidable as the one waged by Debs; they fulminated against gold and tariffs and refractory Cabinet members, opponents within the realm of the defeatable, and through all their struggles they remained well fed and genial. They were not stripped, as was Debs, of everything but the spirit of humanity.

Debs finished. The little audience crowded forward to the platform to shake hands with him. I had a last vision of him leaning down to receive the congratulations of his listeners. They were smiling and seemed happy, as if they had found a champion; the dejection I had noticed in the beginning had disappeared. But by this time the terror of missing the other Judgment, on Providence Street, had fallen heavily upon all of us truants, and we hurried up the aisle and outdoors in a kind of panic.

We ran back to Providence Street at a dogtrot. The sense of release we had felt when we left the synagogue had vanished. From one crisis of life, we had inadvertently stumbled into another, almost equally stringent. I kept thinking of Debs. Of what avail would his election be if at this moment the pillar of quartz were scratching a fatal entry opposite his name? I passionately hoped it wasn't, but you never could tell. Certainly it was tactless of him to voice his grievances as if their removal would be merely the righting of a wrong, and not an act of mercy. What if Debs were to appear before the Actuary Himself? What if he were to intercede for someone marked to die by fire or by water? Was he not powerful enough and eloquent enough to win a reprieve, to placate or—blasphemous thought—perhaps even to defeat the great Judge? In the mighty ultimate contest, I felt a passionate enlistment on the side of Debs. As I think of it now, this was probably my first beginning rift of skepticism, my first faint doubt about the rigid theological beliefs of my forefathers.

But once we were inside the synagogue, Debs, as well as my momentary blasphemy, evaporated utterly. We had indeed missed the beginning of the crucial prayer. This was so black a sin that our hearts sank. Already the congregation, awed and self-absorbed, was chanting the inventory of its possible dooms—". . . who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague . . ." Terrified and out of breath from running, I stood at the back of the congregation and looked around for my father, praying that he had not seen me come in late. Thankfully, I spotted his robed figure in its accustomed place. He was bending over the prayer book on his reading desk and was too much absorbed to notice me. I breathed easier and relaxed a bit, trying to assume the nonchalant and habituated air of one who had never been outside at all and who had never, even for a single moment, abandoned his devotions.

Copyright © 2009