The Jerusalem Post

'Who shall live, who shall die': Matters of life and death on Yom Kippur

 ‘I HOLD my dad as close in my heart as he held me,’ says the writer.  (photo credit: FERN ALLEN)
‘I HOLD my dad as close in my heart as he held me,’ says the writer.
(photo credit: FERN ALLEN)

We live on a proverbial thread. Who will meet their Maker at their predetermined time? Who, before their appointed time?

It’s that time of year again, as the High Holy Day liturgy incantation, “Who shall live, and who shall die,” swirls in my mind. My thoughts wander to those life-and-death moments during my own lifetime, often tucked into the recesses of my memory.

Except at this season.

I am taken back to my childhood neighborhood, where every afternoon our street in Queens transformed into a playground. Baby boomers wiggled their bicycles up and down the block, dodging the baseball games and hopscotch competitions that lined different sections of this New York street. Cars made their way carefully down the block, blasting their horns as we scurried to the sidewalk.

But on this day, the street was mainly deserted. I was a mere child, eager to meet a neighbor opposite our home and play in her yard. I took off, just as a car bounded down the street. My older brother, who was charged with taking me across the road, quickly seized my shirt, yanking me back. The car missed me by mere millimeters. I can still hear the car’s brakes screech as the vehicle came to an abrupt halt.


FAST FORWARD to my young adult life, when I was suffering from a sore throat during a visit to my parents at their Florida retirement home.

 Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur act as an anchor for the Jewish people. (credit: David Holifield/Unsplash)
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur act as an anchor for the Jewish people. (credit: David Holifield/Unsplash)

Mom was a typical stay-at-home wife in the 1950s and ’60s, deferring her bookkeeping career and replacing it by packing us off to school, vacuuming the carpets, doing laundry, shopping for food, meeting “the girls” for a game of mahjong, and getting dinner on the table every night. Then the next day, a repeat variation of her routine.

On this visit to Florida, as Mom and I sat in her kitchen to have lunch, I took a few drops of a spicy oil that was supposed to boost my immune system. As it went down, it zippered my airway. It was impossible to breathe. I stood up and began gasping, in sheer terror. No air would pass.

My mother dropped her fork, sprang to her feet, bound her arms together around my waist, and pushed her fists upward. Miraculously, it opened my airway. Little did I know that between all my mom’s daily activities, she also learned how to perform the Heimlich Maneuver. From that day onward, I always said that my mother gave birth to me twice.

DURING THE COVID pandemic, I often took long morning walks with my dog.


Escaping a terrible fate

One day, I spied a young man walking briskly, his tzitzit swinging with his stride, consumed by whatever was on his cellphone. He soon overtook me as we came to a busy Jerusalem crosswalk. I stopped, seeing a car approaching. Oblivious, the young man – engrossed with whatever was on his phone’s screen – kept his quick pace and entered the street.

I was never good at algebra, as I struggled in ninth grade to figure out the point at which two trains traveling in opposite directions would pass each other. Rate, multiplied by time, equals distance – so the formula went. But on this day, there wasn’t a nanosecond to make a calculation.

The driver, I could see, was distracted, perhaps looking down at her own phone. She’s not slowing down, I said to myself, and she’s going to hit the young man as he walked right in front of her vehicle, never looking up.

Instinct kicked in. “Stop!” I screamed.

I caught her attention and she jammed on her brakes – just in time. Yet the young man didn’t notice a thing. Transported to who-knows-where in his Internet world, he just kept up his quick jaunt, not realizing he had barely escaped a terrible, possibly fatal, accident.

I couldn’t catch up with him, as he faded from sight between apartment buildings. Instead, I tightened my grasp on my dog’s leash. I looked down and noticed that my hands were shaking.

Dealing with a terminal illness

“HOW ARE you dealing with your father’s illness?” a close relative asked me. My 87-year-old father was battling bone cancer – one of the most painful cancers in the constellation of this dreaded disease.

“Every day, I take a proverbial baseball bat to the Angel of Death and swat it away,” I told her.

I was determined that Dad would have as good a quality of life as possible, for as long as possible.

Painkillers enabled him to continue attending his English-speaking senior’s club at the Melabev organization (truly a life-saver!), where he would enthrall his fellow club mates with his heartfelt renditions of “Shalom Aleichem” and Yiddish songs.

But as the summer of 2007 wore on, his condition worsened. The slightest touch sent him into spasms of excruciating pain. He was clearly nearing his end, but I still had my proverbial baseball bat, swatting it in every direction to ward off the inevitable.

On Tisha B’av morning, I entered his room. The nurse would arrive soon with morphine. Somehow, Dad managed to pull himself up and stand on his walker. His dark brown eyes had an unfamiliar, piercing look to them as he stared at me.

“Let me go!” he said to me, over and over. “Let me go!”

“Go – go to your peace,” I said to him, choking on the words. “I’m going to miss you so much.”

The nurse arrived and we got Dad into the bed. The medication kicked in immediately. Dad finally looked relaxed, though his lips were parched. I turned to the table to get him some water. But the Angel of Death had snuck in, knowing that I had surrendered. And this human angel, who during World War II had liberated the Dachau concentration camp with the American troops – never completely recovering from the horror – finally found his true peace.

WE LIVE on a proverbial thread. Who will meet their Maker at their predetermined time? Who, before their appointed time?

We can only pray that this year we are again inscribed in the Book of Life. And maybe even have the supreme privilege of saving a life.

G’mar hatima tova. 