An Improvised Holiday

Hospital-bound, She Found a Way to Celebrate Rosh Hashanah

By Jane Falk

Published September 09, 2009, issue of September 18, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Bad enough that my heartbeat went berserk and I had to be hospitalized. But on Rosh Hashanah? And me, an observant Jew?! Not only would I miss the synagogue service I so loved, and not have visitors because they were forbidden to drive, but how could I possibly adhere to the High Holy Day commandments? Sure, God would forgive me — my life was at stake — but I couldn’t bear the thought of ushering in the New Year without its glorious ritual.

Blowing the Shofar: Rabbi Yehuda Ferris made the traditional call from a hospital room in Berkeley, Calif.
DAVID SPIElER
Blowing the Shofar: Rabbi Yehuda Ferris made the traditional call from a hospital room in Berkeley, Calif.

The hospital has its own rituals, I soon discovered, beginning with admissions.

“My husband is Jewish, too,” said the clerk at the Alta Bates hospital in Berkeley, Calif., as I checked in, while glancing at the religious affiliation on the form I had just filled out.

“Is he a good husband?” I asked, at a loss for the right thing to say.

“Yes! My mother taught me that Jewish men make good husbands, and she was right.”

*Hmm, I thought, we’ve gone from pariahs to prime marriage material.

After registration, I took the elevator to the sixth-floor telemetry unit, where my arrhythmia would be monitored for three days while I began a new medication. I approached the nurses’ station with trepidation. I held little hope that my religious requirements would be understood, much less accommodated.

“For religious reasons, I can’t take calls starting at sunset, or turn my lights on or off, or buzz for help,” I told the head nurse. Could anything sound weirder?

I didn’t even ask about lighting candles. Not a good idea with oxygen around.

But she didn’t blink. “Just write down the names of people you will permit the desk to update on your condition,” she said. “When evening comes, I’ll tape your light switch and put up a sign. If you need a nurse, you can just walk out and find one, since you’ll be on a portable monitor. No problemo.” *Evidently, in Berkeley anybody’s ritual goes. Whew!

“What about meals?” I said with a sigh. “I’m strictly kosher.” Would this be like Nebraska? A friend there requested “no pork or leavened bread” on Passover; her hospital platter arrived with bacon and a note saying “allergic to pork and toasted bread.”

“I’ll send up a dietician,” the nurse said.

And she did. A Jewish dietician — intermarried, of course — who spent an hour reviewing available choices, filling out menus and waxing nostalgic about the kosher home of her childhood. The kitchen adhered to our requests, but the packaged main dish never arrived hot. Well, better cold than *treyf.

The next issue was to hear the shofar, the hallmark of the holiday. But the hospital rabbi was on vacation, the head chaplain informed me. What? Would a priest use his vacation days for Christmas?! Then I remembered that Yehuda Ferris, the Berkeley Chabad rabbi, had offered to come by. I called him.

“Sure. And get me the room numbers of the other Jewish patients so I can blow shofar for them, too,” he requested in true Chabad spirit.

“Sorry, the HIPAA laws prohibit disclosing religion except to the official hospital chaplains,” the head chaplain said.

I had a brainstorm: The rabbi would blow it over the loudspeaker like a “Code Blue.” (It hadn’t occurred to me that using a mic — electricity — was forbidden). I appealed to the head nurse.

“No way. That’s imposing your customs on others,” she said.

“But surely you broadcast carols on Christmas,” I responded.

“As a matter of fact we don’t. If we did it for Christmas, we’d have to do it for every religion’s holidays. Do you have any idea how many different religions are represented here every day?” she asked.

Foiled by political correctness. The horn would be blown in my room.

Oy, how would my 87-year-old Christian roommate respond? She hadn’t uttered a peep when I kept my light on all night (I made the bracha [prayer] over a light bulb instead of candles), but the shofar was pushing it.

“I have a Jewish son-in-law; I know all about Rosh Hashanah,” my roommate said, looking forward to the event. Sure enough, on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Ferris marched into my hospital room. His black fedora was cocked gangster-like to the right, and the tails of his frock coat flapped with every step. His svelte, youthful wife followed behind, pushing the youngest of their 10 children in a stroller.

The news traveled fast. My Kenya-born nurse rushed into the room and brought a Jewish colleague, who was proud to be an insider.

Te-ki-yah.” I could hear the prayer book representation of the shofar’s sound in its first blast. Through the picture window, the bearded rabbi, head thrown back, the curved horn reaching up from his lips, was silhouetted against the rolling hills like a transplanted Chagall. He elongated the pitch-perfect “iy” so that the plaintive cry for attention from above reverberated inside me.

Shevarim.” The interrupted chords of the second sequence embodied my feelings of my humility and brokenness in the face of the Creator.

Teruah.” The staccato notes of the third blast were my own heartbeats, now in regular rhythm, both pleading and grateful. My body quivered along with the notes, and tears rolled down my face.

Tekiya.” Everyone in the room, Jew and non-Jew, stood transfixed.

The hospital room had been transformed into a synagogue whose congregation consisted of my Kenyan nurse, my 87-year-old roommate with a Jewish son-in-law, a Jewish nurse with a non-Jewish husband, plus assorted passersby, and it felt holy.

God must have smiled, too: He gave me a very good year.

Jane Falk is a consultant in cross-cultural communications who holds a doctorate in linguistics from Princeton University. She is writing a memoir of her “colorful” journey into Orthodox Judaism. She lives in Berkeley, Calif.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.