When I first arrived in Los Angeles from Dallas, we—my dad, stepmom, and I—lived for over a year in a 500 square foot bungalow in Santa Monica. It was a few doors down from a small apartment complex occupied exclusively by a family of Hasidic Jews. The front of their building was quarantined by a low fence and crammed with playground equipment. I traipsed past countless times on my way to the candy counter at the neighborhood liquor store. Along this route was the stretch of sidewalk that my dad wanted to search, believing we would find my name among the many scrawled into the concrete.
Some of the Hasidic boys were my age. I had never seen anything like them. They had tassels at their waists and curls at their ears. In those months, I officially went “boy crazy” and I weighed even those boys as romantic partners. I would see them in the evenings walking in their uniform of tiny suits with the rest of their family members: one dad and one mom, and a string of siblings from big to small like stairs stepping down. I thought they looked particularly fetching when they topped off their outfits with kid-sized fedoras like old-timey gangsters from a school play.
For all the time I spent eyeing those kids, I never once spoke to them—nor they to me. Whatever made their world operate was too different from the particulars of mine; it was like we occupied dimensions so distant that any sound I might utter would dissipate before it reached their ears. I had the idea that they might be an optical illusion, a projected image on a screen; if I snuck up and looked behind it, I’d see only dust bunnies and boxes.
My dad and I walked back and forth in front of the apartment building, searching the names and messages left in the sidewalk. I kept glancing up at the building. It looked exactly the same, right down to the playground equipment.
Dad and I came to the corner without finding my name and then doubled back. A hundred other names were there, but we couldn’t find mine. Had it been washed out by time? Had my father only imagined our subversive act?
At first I was disappointed, but then I decided maybe it wasn’t there for a reason.
According to Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashanah the “Book of Judgment” is opened and those who have lived righteously will find their names inscribed in the “Book of Life,” while those who have not will be written in the “Book of Death.” It’s a theme that Christians have galloped away with, sometimes to horrifying effect. When I encountered it at a Baptist church, the Book of Life was presented as set-in-stone—your name is either in there or it’s not. If it’s not, then you can forget about spending eternity with God.
In Judaism, I discover a more flexible interpretation. Besides these two options, there’s another place your name can be. It’s the location of a majority of our names. Those who are neither all bad nor all good, but a mixture of the two, will find their names in the “Book of the Doubtful.” Technically, the period of reflection and repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provides the opportunity to have your name reassigned to the Book of Life; more realistically, I think it’s a long-term goal: you hope to do enough good during your days on earth that the scales tip in your favor.
Perhaps all sidewalks are an extension of the Book of Life, I thought. My name wasn’t there because it is in the Book of the Doubtful. Like most people, I have some work before it gets reassigned.
As my dad and I got back in the car, I spotted a Hasidic man standing near the apartment complex. I knew then that I would try to visit the synagogue in which the residents of this building worship—due to the rules about not driving on Sabbath, it had to be within walking distance. At the very least, a visit to that synagogue would allow me to inquire about my old Hasidic neighbors. As long as I was righting the old wrongs I had drudged up with my Rosh Hashanah soul-searching, this seemed a good one to add to the mix. Maybe our two worlds could finally speak.