Queens of Nothingness

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ  

Baruch atah Adonai,
Blessed are You, Lord. 

Our parents have not eaten all day. In this world our family enters once a year on Yom Kippur, it’s 5765, not 2004. On all Jewish holidays, without fail, we journey back to the houses where our parents grew up. It’s like going back in time for them, like entering a secret part of their lives for my sister and me. This year, we’ll break the fast at our maternal grandparents’ house. Although we have no idea at the time, this will also be the first year of our grandfather’s seven-year battle with cancer. 5765 will be the beginning of the end. 

We don’t know that this is the last year of normalcy. That every holiday after will be clouded in a haze of anxiety. My sister and I will look back on 5765 and wish we had more conversations with our grandfather, wish we had not secluded ourselves in our sanctuary of sisterhood, from which all adults were banished  

At nine and six, we envy our thirteen-month-old brother who is exempt from all the day’s obligations. He doesn’t have to sit through the hours of services, recite the prayers we do not understand.  He doesn’t have to stand tugging on the coats of our parents as they talk to adults we only vaguely know. To some degree, we understand the importance and significance. As much as we complain, we go to temple and pray as a family.  After services at the synagogue, my sister and I return to our sanctuary, and the day melts into nothing. 

אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הַעוֹלָם
Eloheinu Melech haolam
our God, King of the Universe

At nine and six years old, we do not fast. We get to eat all the food we want to, without the religious mandates of adulthood. We are focused on each other, given free reign as our parents fast and go through the motions of ritual. Nothingness is our favorite kind of day. No soccer practice to go to, no chores to pretend to do, and no parents to watch over our every move. We imitate our parents at first—laze around our house in dresses, like mom, watch TV and nap on the couch, like dad—but inevitably, the day of nothingness fills with our imagination. 

We create kingdoms, we save the world from evil, we explore rainforests full of stuffed animals in our bedrooms. We are the center of our own universe, our parents and little brother blips on our radar. We are inseparable. When sundown nears, we say goodnight to our little brother and head to the grandparents. We bounce with excitement in the backseat, salivating at the thought of the food that awaits us: fresh bagels lathered with cream cheese, topped with a layer of lox. A fresh glass of orange juice, no pulp. Cake for desert. Everything wonderful. 

שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ
Shehehcheyanu, v’kiy’manu
who has granted us life, sustained us

We arrive at our grandparents’ house as the sun sets, but they are not home from temple. Our grandfather, the exemplar Jewish American, still attends Shabbat services every Saturday morning, services he will continue to attend until a few weeks before his death. 

Our mom’s childhood home is all angles and dark colors and breakable things. There are paintings hanging on the walls, not photographs. When we get to this home, we run up the stairs to the dining room to see our cousins; our aunt is pregnant again. We immediately scheme to find the food.  When our grandparents finally arrive, they do not sweep us up in hugs and kisses. They say a quick, solemn prayer, the adults grab their food, and we sit down to eat. 

After a bagel or two, our grandparents come over to their grandchildren to hear us ramble about our lives. The bagels transform the musty, used bookstore smell of the house into that of a Jewish deli. When the meal ends, our energy level has plummeted. We’ve eaten too much, drunk our orange juice, tired of our cousins, and are ready to go home. 

וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה׃
V’higianu laz’man hazeh 
and enabled us to reach this occasion. 

We fall asleep during the car ride, but wake up as we pull into the garage. We pretend to still be asleep so our dad will carry us upstairs. He tucks us into our beds, tidies the stuffed animals strewn about—remnants of the worlds we created earlier in the day. We’ll wake up and have bagels for breakfast, because our grandparents ordered more than we could eat for dinner. We’ll have to go back to school, and we won’t go back to synagogue till next New Year. 

Once we get to college, we won’t be able to celebrate in the same way, with family and bagels and love. Celebration will take a different form. Yom Kippur will mean finding the few Jews on campus who actually want to go to services, then drinking to be drunk with the Jews who don’t want to go to services but still want to feel observant. There will be nothing holy about it, but there’ll be something—a haven of friends sustained by memories of our Jewishness.
Yom Kippurs of the future will get less formal and more nostalgic.  Our grandfather will succumb to his battle with cancer a few days before the start of 5772 and our grandmother will move out of their house shortly thereafter. The New Year will always recall a dark dining room filled with bagels and family, the kingdom of nothingness my sister and I reigned over.  

Each year, Yom Kippur will be new but familiar, like the Shehecheyanu.