Jewish language of repentance keeps vibrant culture alive

The days fall away, and the end of a sacred season is soon upon us. Shemini Atzeret begins tonight and Simchat Torah begins tomorrow evening (Reform Jews celebrate both holidays tonight). These holidays bring to a close a monthlong season of celebration and introspection.

With them comes one last chance to reach out, in ways we might have thought no longer available to us.

There are so many greetings at this time of year: shanah tovah (happy New Year); gut yontif, chag sameach (happy holiday, in Yiddish and Hebrew respectively), g'mar chatimah tovah (may you be inscribed, finished, sealed for a good fate). And, of course, there is my favorite holiday wish of all. It is this: a guten kvittel!

Not familiar with the phrase? Well, therein lies a tale. And a danger, that something beautiful will be lost.

Language, after all, is not just about words. The words in any given language are a concept cluster. They are the bearers of ideas, transmitters of tradition; they convey a culture, a worldview and not just a dictionary definition. That is what makes translation an art form, exactness impossible. How do we translate the French term voilà? Behold? There it is? It can't convey the tone, the mystery, the twinkle in the eye.

A number of years ago I read a powerful article by Cullen Murphy, editor of The Atlantic, about what is lost when a language disappears. He described a number of dialects on the verge of extinction, and found special terms in each of them — ways of looking at the world, observations and insights on human life that will vanish forever when the last speakers of these languages passes on.

I don't remember many details, but an example was something like this: a single word, in an Asian island dialect with five speakers left, that meant "the sardonic expression of regret for something you knew was the wrong thing to do but really wanted to work out anyway." (Maybe in English we call that the "political concession speech." But that's still three words.)

There is so much richness in our own tradition, so much depth in phrases that carry our culture that is lost or hard to carry over if English is the only tool we have to look

at our own Jewish heritage. Hebrew, at least, is a living language, with a secure future somewhere. With all our effort, what will become of Yiddish? And with it, a world it left behind?

A guten kvittel is a Yiddish phrase, and an old Eastern European greeting for the holiday, right before Shemini Atzeret, of Hoshanah Rabah. Guten is a word many people know: It means "good."

But vat's a kvittel? A kvittel is a little note, a little piece of paper. It could be a petitionary prayer, like the kind that was placed in the Western Wall before being replaced by faxes and cell phones held up against the stones. And what it means

to wish one another a guten kvittel is this: With Ne'eilah, the service at the end of Yom Kippur, we say that the gates are closed. The rapprochement between heaven and earth, the spiritual opportunity, the annual openness of God to hearing our prayers in an especially intimate and effective way, all that is over. Our seasonal task is supposed to be complete; our repentance made, our prayers recited, our acts of tzedakah already made (the checks already in the mail).

But for Jews, how long does it take us to say goodbye? (I once heard it said of another group that they left without saying goodbye, but that Jews, well, we said goodbye, but never left.) The gates are closed. But guess what? If you write small enough, if you try hard enough, even after Yom Kippur, all the way through to Hoshanah Rabah, perhaps even to Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, well, you can always slip another note, slide a final plea underneath the closed gate and into the world beyond.

A guten kvittel is a fervent wish that we can still slip in with any unfinished business, any goodness that might tip the balance of the coming year, and improve our fate.

The "little note" is meant to help us out. But with a different aspect of this season, I want to push the image a little bit further. Tradition has viewed this kvittel as a note for ourselves. But Yizkor is coming. And with it our memory of others. Maybe this note we can slide under the gate is not about us and our fate. Maybe it is something else. Perhaps it is even a metaphorical chance to reach, for a moment, into another world, to touch one more time the inhabitants thereof.

Think, for a moment, of what you would do. You have one chance. A single sentiment. A small scrap of paper. One moment to get a message through, to those who walked with you, to those who are no longer here. Beyond "I love you," what's the one thing you'd say, to your loved ones, who are no longer with us? Dreams are for them to reach us (remember Tevye?). A guten kvittel, the good note…maybe that's our chance to reach them.

On Simchat Torah the scrolls unroll, the letters touch, the end becomes beginning, and beginning the end. The last letter of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is lamed; the first letter of Breisheet (Genesis) is bet. Together they form the leb of Torah, a word pronounced in modern Hebrew as lev and commonly translated as "heart," but that in biblical Hebrew seems to have also meant "mind."

And it is then, in the time when the holiday task is done, but God asks us to linger on a little longer; it is there, in the space between the heart and the mind, in the gap between the scrolls, in the crevice between worlds, that we can reach out, slide between the ordinary and extraordinary, fit a note between the border of everyday reality. For a moment that is not a moment, in a place that is not a place, the scroll unrolls, life and death touch, and we can say what we need to say.

At the close of this sacred season, may we all be open to something beyond ourselves. And for all of us — a guten kvittel.