Chinatown I

There were maybe 200 Jewish families in my small Midwest town. Maybe less, but enough to support a synagogue and a Rabbi for services, a Sunday religious school and a Hebrew school for preparing Bar Mitzvah for boys (when I had my Bar Mitzvah in 1960 the Bat Mitzvah as a common practice for girls was a still a decade away). The flow of Jewish holidays was mostly commemorative like Hanukah, Purim or Passover celebrating when the persecuted Jews triumphed against all odds. As the comedy routine goes—Jewish Holidays—They tried to kills us. We survived. Let’s eat? But the High Holidays had a different feel. They go from the new year of Rosh Hashanah through a ten-day period of reflection to Yom Kippur, the final day with a 24-hour fast and personal reflection. It’s the time to come together with your failings and make amends with those you had wronged.

As a kid it was a day out of school, competitive fasting with my brother and feeling bad about my chronically late homework. Atonement for my great sin. Driving past the raucous school playground on the way to the children’s service, it was fine being out of school while everyone else was in. A tiny bit of gloat working. After sundown, a dinner – Brisket made sweet and sour served with a crown-shaped Challah.

Fourteen years old saw my last visit to a High Holiday service. Sitting next to my dad, both of us restless in the stuffy drear of the very long adult service, I realized that day he hated religion, thought it caused all the problems of the world. He’d done his duty with my Bar Mitzvah. Ten minutes into the service he points to the door with his chin. We skedaddled. My hero, we spend the day relaxing at home.

Miles and years away, realizing the line-up of the holidays, memorials, festivals, serve to mark time and give a moment for psychic unloading. How, now, with a kid of my own to honor and celebrate. What to do? Boring endless services at the local schul were out. It needed to be something amusing and meaningful and somehow connected to art or the natural world, my adopted religions. Doing things that created a shared context in a family. It also needed to be out of school on a school day. Over the years we shaped that day with hikes, a couple of museum visits, we even went to the movies one year, to Koyanaskatsi. Hooky from school needed to have an educational component.

One year my eleven-year-old Noah and I went to Chinatown and explored around. Spending the sunny fall day reflecting mostly on what comes next. We ate good at a dive-y place, a locals place. Convivial and concentrated on one another made the day somehow special. We bought delicate intricate paper cutouts and sparklers. It seemed like from another century, but China in the 70”s was a locked mystery under Mao.

On a side alley away from all the tourist hustle, away from all the food shopping, we came upon a fortune cookie factory. Peeking in, through a door cracked opened about a foot we saw something very steam-age. Through the slim opening we saw three women working the hot clanking, archaic merry-go-round machines. They were sticking thin slips of paper printed with fortunes into the circles of cooking dough. While the dough was still pliable and hot, unerring steel fingers folded  the words of wisdom into a closed basket of cookie. As we peered in, transfixed, we saw behind the curtain, the very cloud of heaven’s messengers, the Greek fates spinning-measuring-cutting, busy at their machines. Humans busy with work deep inside the cookie-dough oracular hive. The elderly boss slippered over and slowly closed the door.

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