In the late 1970’s I worked at a run-down residential hotel that had been sold and was about to be renovated. The legions of accountants, lawyers, contractors and financial schemers confounded even the notable. I managed to keep them all straight, pass information one to another and generally play the know-it-all role I like.
The lead accountant, Mel, asked if I had any friends who could be temporary helpers on some new events his firm was staffing—the Taste of Chicago, ChicagoFest and Art Chicago Expo.
“Sure,” I said, “How much will they get paid?”
“Free entry, all the food they can eat, a T-shirt and a poster.”
Having just accumulated a whole batch of new friends in Alcoholics Anonymous, I knew plenty of unemployed sober oddballs hungry for food and fun as ticket-takers and money-changers. Next thing I knew, Mel told me I had to meet “the guy” in charge.
“Come to Temple Beth Israel on Yom Kippur.” Mel said.
“What? What’s that?” I said, “Am I allowed? What do I wear?”
“Everyone’s allowed. Day of Atonement. It’s the best time to do business.”
I tried to sneak into a seat in the back and look around for Mel. After lengthy prayers and singing, there was an intermission. Mel appeared at my side, grabbed me by the elbow and said, “Let’s go.”
All the congregants rose up, walked around, talked and laughed and “did business”. Mel introduced me to “the guy” who headed up one of Chicago’s Big Eight downtown accounting firms.
“How many people you got?” The guy asked me.
“Twenty or so,” I lied.
“Good.” Bring ‘em to Navy Pier on Saturday and get ‘em signed up. We’ll take it from there.”
In the years since, I’ve practiced atonement often — not just once a year, but almost everyday. At a recent book group studying The Jewish Annotated New Testament, I inched into a discussion of Ken Burns’ documentary, The US and the Holocaust.
“Someone told me the trouble with Jews is that they didn’t assimilate.” I said.
“The. trouble. with. Jews?” One of the Jewish participants admonished.
“Do you hear what you’re saying?”
I once asked a musician friend to sing Leonard Cohen’s Bird on the Wire at my funeral.
“No.” He replied.
“Aw, c’mon. Just say yes. I won’t know. I’ll be dead.”
“Better to atone when you’re alive.” He said.
I bowed to my ignorance and he agreed to sing just these words.
Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free
Like a worm on a hook
Like a knight from some old-fashioned book
I have saved all my ribbons for thee
If I, if I have been unkind
I hope that you can just let it go by
If I, if I have been untrue
I hope you know it was never to you
God bless Leonard Cohen 1934–2016.