I smoothed out my knee-length white dress a final time before opening the car door and stepping out into the synagogue parking lot. My dad was holding our Siddurim, or sacred books used during the service in his arms, and my mom carried our tallis bags. The plain cloth covering our individual prayer shawls seemed so ordinary but yet familiar and comforting. Mom glanced over at us and gave me a disapproving look before jerking her head towards the beige building, indicating that we needed to get moving right away. She turned away from my father and I, walking towards the synagogue with her head held high. Dad quickly fell into step next to her, but I lagged behind them, not wanting to communicate with them just yet.
We climbed up the cracked stairs and approached the olive green doors that towered above us. My father reached the doors first and opened it for us, a stoic expression on his face. Mom's low heels made loud noises in the silent entrance hall. The sounds of bullets raining on tiles followed her until she walked up the carpeted stairs, her shoes muffled by the welcoming red fabric of the synagogue. I looked up at my father, silently begging him to at least acknowledge me, but he simply entered the crowded synagogue after her. I sighed and followed him inside, putting on a fake smile and taking a pamphlet from one of the greeters as I walked in.
On the memorial wall behind the greeter, a plaque displayed my grandmother's name and her date of death in faded gold letters. I pressed my right hand to my lips and kissed it before touching her plaque, just as I had always done for as long as I could remember. "I'm sorry, Grandma," I muttered as I turned away from the wall and followed my parents to a cushioned row. We sat down a few places away from the aisle, murmuring apologies to the people who we blocked in order to get to our seats.
Once we arrived there, my mom passed us our individual Tallit. I accepted mine and slipped off the cover, unfolding the shawl and holding it up to the light. I then closed my eyes and whispered the blessing said for before putting it on. Afterwards, I wrapped the Tallit around my shoulders, pulling my long hair out from underneath it automatically. I glanced over at my parents to see that they were doing the same and were already flipping to the correct page in their Siddurim.
I crossed my legs and opened up the pamphlet that the greeter had handed me. Inside, there were various items such as advertisements for Bible study with the Rabbi and a list of those who had passed away in the past month. There was also another list of the people who would be performing various tasks during the service such as opening the Ark, chanting the HafTorah, and blowing the shofar, or ram's horn, to signify the end of the service and our fasting.
My eyes scanned the list of those who would be reciting portions from the Torah scrolls. I couldn't help but feel a twinge of guilt as I read the four names. Three of them were girls that I had gone to school with as a child. The second name on that list was mine. I was to read from the Torah after the Rabbi's middle daughter and before two of my former classmates. Seeing their names again stung, but reading my own hurt the most.
Just a few weeks before, I had tried yet again to try and memorize my portion. I was sitting down on the blue couch in my mother's office and she was facing me in her black office chair. I hadn't practiced one bit since I had been granted the honor of reading the Torah portion a few months before. It wasn't completely my fault. I needed to catch up with my assignments at school and had little to no spare time. Besides, my Hebrew had always been lacking, and the thought of reading from the Torah on the holiest day of the year never really caught my attention until it was too late.
I had turned off my iPad and looked up at my mother. "Mom, please just listen to me for a minute," I'd begged. "There's no way that I'll be able to learn all of this in time for Yom Kippur."
My mother had been chanting the HafTorah all on her own for about nine years, and was going on her tenth. She had her bat mitzvah, her ceremony of becoming an adult in the Jewish world, at this synagogue and was well known by everyone for being talented with Hebrew. Being her sole daughter, I was expected to follow in her stead, starting with a Torah portion and eventually taking over for her when she would be unable to read it herself. The thought of bringing honor to myself and my family amongst our Jewish community meant so much to my mom. The disapproving look on her face when I had originally told her that I wouldn't be able to live up to her expectations made me keep trying unsuccessfully. But since it was only two weeks until the service, I had run out of time. There wouldn't be enough time for anyone to substitute for me and I would have no choice but to stammer through the portion, shaming myself in front of hundreds of people on the holiest day of the year and embarrassing my mother's legacy.
Mom's facial expressions shone in a variety of emotions from furious to nearly bursting out in tears. I felt horrible instantly, but I was left with no choice. I took a deep breath and nervously looked up into her eyes, light blue eyes glaring into cautious hazel. The next few minutes were awful; I hadn't fought with her that badly in a long time. I was forced to email the Cantor myself and explain that I wouldn't be able to read my portion. He emailed me back that day describing in vivid detail how disappointed he was in me, that I had let him and the entire synagogue down. Every word was a punch to the head; I could practically feel the damage being done to my frontal lobe as I continued reading his response.
My thought process was interrupted by the loud, off-key choir and obnoxious flutist. I inwardly groaned and checked my watch. Afternoon services had only just begun, and I would be busy praying for the next six hours or so. My stomach growled and I wiped my eyes, letting out a tiny sigh of defeat.
For the next hour and a half, I spent my time either praying along with everyone else or daydreaming. It was going along smoothly until I heard the prayer I once used to adore, but at that very moment, dreaded more than anything else. The Cantor and Rabbi, along with a few members of the Board of Trustees, stood at the Ark; each of them carried a large Torah. I could hear faint whispers all around the room: elderly friends wishing each other a good fast, a baby gurgling, and especially my mother greeting just about everyone around her. They all knew her and she them, so of course I would have to avert my gaze to not be caught in their whirlwind of gossip.
When the prayer was finally completed, all but one of the Torahs were returned to the ark, and the remaining sacred scrolls were placed on a pedestal for it to be read out of, everyone returned to their seats. I didn't even have to look at my parents to know what they were doing, but I glanced over at them anyways. My mother was staring daggers at my head while my dad was fast asleep, snoring somewhat quietly. I sighed and sat up straight, deciding to not look back, or at least not for a while.
The Cantor approached the pedestal and called up the Rabbi's daughter, first by her name and then by her Hebrew name. She rose from her seat and walked to the bimah, the stage, I couldn't help but notice how confident she seemed to be. She had a smile on her face and didn't have to wipe her sweaty palms on the skirt of her short, beige dress. As she cleared her throat and began to read, my stomach felt sick with the poison of regret that I wasn't prepared. I'd been attending services more than anyone else in my old grade and knew all of the prayers by heart. And with my incredibly intelligent mother, there was no excuse for me not going up to that bimah and reading my portion.
Once she finished, I knew that there was no way that I could just sit there and have my name called up before either the Rabbi or the Cantor would correct the other and there would be an announcement of my failure. Or worse, someone else would be called up instead of me and since everyone knew my mother, they knew me, and they would turn to look at me as if I had either grown three heads or proclaimed something incredibly vile and inappropriate. Not even those of my former peers who were practically illiterate in Hebrew would have given up so quickly on a Torah portion for Yom Kippur.
I couldn't take it anymore; my head was throbbing and I needed to get outside for at least a little while. I stood up and carefully yet quickly made my way out of the row, nearly tripping on an elderly gentleman's cane as I hurried to escape. Just as the Cantor approached the pedestal to announce my name, I had descended down the stairs in the entrance hall and ran outside into the burning daylight outside.
Once I had left the main building, I dashed over to the playground. It was more or less a custom for me to leave services during the Rabbi's speech, or the Dvar Torah due to its boringness, but my visit to the swing set had been early this year. I sat down on my regular swing and pulled my hair out of its ponytail, letting it cascade down my back and flutter softly with the wind every now and then. My thoughts were a jumbled mess, a knot that I was unable to pull apart easily. I sighed and closed my eyes, trying to calm down for a little while.
Quite some time had passed when I opened my eyes again. I checked my watch and knew that I'd have to return or else I would eventually get in huge trouble for not being there to watch my mom chant her HafTorah. I reluctantly got off of my swing and headed back for the dull, dreary synagogue with a dress that wasn't as pure and white as it was before today. Deep down in my heart, I knew that I couldn't just escape this problem for a little while; I'd have to face the curious older members of the congregation and my parents at some point. I couldn't just keep putting it to the side and hoping that it would fade away eventually. Sure, I'd failed at following in my mom's footsteps. That didn't mean that I couldn't be someone else; someone who I actually wanted to be. So as I opened the door for myself to the entrance hall, I walked in with my head held high and my own low heels shooting bullets into the tiled floor. I no longer required my mother's legacy to create one for myself.