A CHICKEN SIMMERS IN JULlA'S SOUP POT, THE FIRST KOSHER CHICKEN SHE HAS EVER COOKED, THOUGH SHE IS NOT NEW TO COOKING. JULIA, HER EYES ON THE CLOCK, HER MIND ELSEWHERE, LIFTS LIDS OFF POTS CROWDING THE STOVE. VAPORS OF HONEY ED CARROTS AND TOMATO SAUCE AND PARSLEYED POTATOES RISE IN HER FACE. SHE RE-COVERS THE POTS, GLANCES AT HER WRISTWATCH. 4:25: DID SHE REMIND Rob this morning that candlelighting was at 5:56? They ought to be sitting down in five minutes if they're to do justice to the five-course holiday meal she's prepared. Perhaps she forgot to mention candlelighting altogether. She's been so careful to avoid a repeat of last year's Yom Kippur battle with Rob that she may not have said anything at all.

Julia peers inside the soup pot, skimming golden islets of fat from the bubbling brew. She spears a drumstick with a knife. The meat flakes off easily. She blows on the morsel at the tip of the knife, pops it in her mouth. It tastes like - chicken. What had she expected? And what had possessed her, in the car yesterday, to swerve to the side of the road so abruptly that the cab behind her nearly hit her? She had certainly passed KOVACS'S KOSHER ("Marinated Spare Ribs", "B-B-Q Chickens") hundreds of times before without the impulse to stop.

Inside the shop, she pretended not to understand as Mr. and Mrs. Kovacs exchanged bursts of rapid Hungarian with each other. "Another one that gets religion before Yom Kippur, a once-a-year Jew!" said the butcher.

"That makes seven in a row I've never seen before?" Mrs. Kovacs made change. "Chag sameach," she smiled at Julia, baring a gold crown.

"Koszonom szepen", said Julia, in her best Hungarian. Thank you.

The doorbell rings and Julia feels relief suffuse through her. Rob is home in time. There will be no repeat of last year's histrionics, of a drama she well recalls though still does not fully understand:

"But what difference does it make if we eat five minutes later?" Rob, harried yet insouciant, had arrived at the last minute when Julia stood already poised by her grandmother's silver candlesticks. The table had been cleared of food. Rob had tried to sound reasonable through the undercurrent of irritation in his voice. "How could you not hold dinner for me? We can fast five minutes longer tomorrow. For God's sake, Julia, you never used to care about any of this stuff before!"

Julia, in her late thirties, cries as easily as when she was small. The tears trickled down her face as she lit the holiday candles. Not because of Rob's anger, but because of the very justness of his words. She had certainly never cared about this stuff before. It had always been her father's role to rush her mother, to rush all of them through the meal before Kol Nidre. Dressed in his best suit, his eyes blinking nervously behind his glasses, he used to eye his wristwatch while urging them to hurry. "Nine gulps of water at the end of the meal," he had intoned at the head of the table. "Nine gulps to finish with and you won't be thirsty tomorrow.'

Daddy, Daddy.

Around the table in Julia's dining room the remnants of the feast have been cleared away. She stands behind the candles, her cheeks catching their glow, eyes suddenly radiant because Rob is home on time, has buried last year's hatchet, is resolved to please (humor?) her. Rob faces Julia; their children and her mother flank the table between them. On the nearby buffet spread with an embroidered runner, the yahrzeit candles in their metal encasements occasionally sputter. Rob, his brown head bare, stumbles hurriedly over the kiddush.

Yahrzeit candles. Julia remembers.

Thirty years ago, the end of the '50s. Their first year in Montreal, their first Yom Kippur in a strange land. She was eight. At the foot of the velveteen sofa a small table covered with a richly embroidered cloth. On it, six fat, metal-encased sputtering candles casting weird patterns on the ceiling, permeating the room with the smell of wax.

Julia, the child, wakes with a start, staring in disoriented detachment at the flickering patterns in the half-light. Her mouth is dry, sour.

From the other side of the wall, a sound she can't decode. From her parents' room. A muffled repetitive noise, like a series of stifled, cut-off sneezes.

Her soles cling clammy to the rose-patternd linoleum as she pushes the door to their room open. The room fully lit. Like an owl she blinks in the painful brightness, trying to make sense of the image. On the far side of the bed, her father's bulky form doubled over - source of the muffled sobs. Her view now obscured. Mummy with dishevelled hair, in white nightie, bending over Julia, finger on her lips. Easing her out of the room.

"It's all right," Mummy whispers. "Go back to bed, Julia. He does this every year. Every Kol Nidre evening. Mourning his dead .... All his dead from the War. Once a year he does this. It has nothing to do with you."

Her father's tears for his dead: mother, father, brothers - all swallowed by Auschwitz. Aunts, uncles, cousins, college chums. A first wife whose picture hangs in the living room over the velveteen sofa. A little girl - her sister - who would be ten years older than Julia had she lived.

"It has nothing to do with you."

But her father had wept for the living as well. He had wept for Julia when she and Rob announced their engagement in 1967. Not the primordial sobs that had roused her on Kol Nidre night, just a misting of his glasses as in a fine drizzle. He had left the room in a hurry.

The summer of '67. Mad euphoria after the Six Day War. Summer of Expo. Mini skirts and clogs and oversized sunglasses. A queue snaking in front of the Israeli pavilion. Her hand in Rob's. The midday sun beating down. The shrill scream of seagulls. The odor of steamies and vinegar and fries.

"Tears: A Yom Kippur Story"

This short story was published in

Fall 1990

Return to Essays/Articles