Growing up in a small town in the center of England in the 1960s, Hoshannah Rabbah was nothing more than the last day of Chol Hamoed Sukkos. And Chol Hamoed Sukkos meant school for us children.
It caused enough raised eyebrows at our non-Jewish school when we were absent for so many days during the month of Tishrei. There were a few other Jewish girls who took off Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur but those two days at each end of Sukkos made us look like extremists – and taking off Chol HaMoed was definitely not even a dream.
We were one of the few families who observed Shabbat in this small town where my parents had settled when they married at the end of the war. My father considered himself lucky to have found work in a company where he didn’t have to work on Shabbat. And, as his parents had also settled in the same town, when other religious families made the inevitable move to London after the war, my parents stayed where they were.
My father had his education in Germany cut short due to the war. His parents, seeing what was happening as the Nazis rose to power, sent him, an only child, away to Holland to continue some vocational training so he would be able to fend for himself should that become necessary. From there he traveled to England where, thank G-d, he was eventually joined by his parents who managed to get out before it was too late.
He had never had a chance to enjoy much Jewish religious education of any sort, certainly never learning in yeshiva. But my mother’s father had been a town rabbi in Germany and through her, my father diligently filled in the gaps of his Jewish knowledge and practice— we were one of the most religious families in the town.
Nevertheless, chol hamoed never made it into the picture of school-free days – that was just too much to ask in our public school.
But many years later, Hoshanah Rabbah took on a whole new significance.
My husband and I and our 18-month-old baby were about to sit down to breakfast in the Sukkah in our home in London on Hoshana Rabbah , when the phone rang. My father had suffered a brain hemorrhage and was critically ill in the hospital in my hometown, 100 miles from where we now lived.
I was numb. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t move or react. I was in my 9th month with our second child. My husband called our doctor, explained the situation and asked whether he should take me to see my father, bearing in mind the speed we would have to travel in order to get there and for my husband at least to return home before Yom Tov. He was the rabbi of our small community in south London and knew they wouldn’t be able to manage a two-day holiday without him, especially with no prior notice.
The doctor said I should go so that I wouldn’t always regret not seeing my father while he was still alive.
As my husband was speaking to our shul gabbai, the second call came. It was too late- my father had passed on to the World of Truth.
The small kehilla in Leicester was doing its best to give final honor to one of its few religious community members and arrange the funeral within the few hours that remained before the holiday would begin.
My husband again called my doctor. “Should I take my wife to the funeral?” This time the answer was a definite NO. Time was racing and the drive would be even faster and I could go to visit my father’s kever at another time.
The rebbetzin of a neighboring community came to be with me at the time of the funeral and my husband rushed out of the door, desperately hoping to be on time and return home again before Yom Tov.
That was undoubtedly the worst ever Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah of my life. I felt terrible being away from my mother and three sisters who were in our old family home, their lives almost in limbo as they waited until after Simchas Torah to start the week of mourning. My husband encouraged me to go to shul for Yizkor as I hadn’t been able to be at the funeral and it would maybe help me feel the closure that I could barely believe.
This was the first time either of us had lost a parent and our knowledge of the halachos of mourning was negligible, so we didn’t know that it isn’t customary to daven yizkor during the first year of mourning. As I sat in shul sobbing as quietly as I could, the members of our kehilla tried their best to comfort me, but it was all still too raw and unbelievable.
We were only women sitting shiva (a period of formal mourning); my mother and us four sisters. My uncle said kaddish for my father for the eleven months of mourning and continued every year on his yahrzeit(the anniversary of the death). I always felt at a loss on his yahrzeit. I wanted to feel that there was something that I could do apart from just giving charity and increasing my mitzvot and acts of kindness.
It was only years later that I realized that in raising a Torah true family we had in fact been gradually building up day by day, child by child, just what my father’s soul needed. Once we leave this world, we can no longer do any mitzvot. We remain in the position we are in when we arrive in the World of Truth, unless our descendants learn Torah and do mitzvot- for which our sould also receive credit.
And this Baruch Hashem is exactly what has happened and is continuing to happen.
We made Aliyah to Jerusalem; our daughters were privileged to learn in religious schools and to never have to think twice about going to school on Chol Ha’moed. Our son and now grandsons learn in yeshivos – something my father was never privileged to do.
Here in Eretz Yisrael, I learned the real significance of Hoshana Rabbah. It is our last chance to ensure a favorable judgement after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; therefore many boys and men stay up learning all night .
As Hoshana Rabbah is my father’s yahrzeit, his grandson and great-grandsons , who are growing in number every year, spend the night learning in my father’s memory, and several make a siyum the following day.
As I look around the sunny Sukkah in our Jerusalem home and listen to the sing-song tones of my father’s great-grandsons learning in his memory, I feel comforted in a way I was never able to feel in the first years after his death. I am sure now that in the merit of his dedication to Judaism in difficult circumstances, his great-grandchildren are here learning in Jerusalem and his soul is rising higher and higher towards the Kisei HaKavod.
Submitted by Ann Goldberg
First published in the Jewish Press