With summer coming to an end soon, I found myself getting nostalgic. Then it dawned on me, what summer? I recalled Mark Twain’s quote, “The coldest winter I ever spent was one summer in San Francisco.” This year, Twain could almost have been talking about Santa Monica.
Desperate to catch a last glimmer of summer, lately I’ve been going into the ocean. As cold as the water is, forget catching summer, I’m lucky I didn’t catch the flu.
Last week it was so chilly that, as I walked toward the beach, I debated whether it was even warm enough to sit and read. I was comforted by the sight of a large gathering by the shoreline. How cold could it be if so many people were by the water?
It turns out that day was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which makes today at sundown Yom Kippur. The people on the beach were observing a religious ritual called Tashlich. (As opposed to my religious ritual of sitting in a beach chair with a good book.)
Tashlich means “casting off” in Hebrew and involves symbolically casting off one’s sins by tossing pieces of bread into the water. It’s taught that just as the water carries away the bread, so too are sins symbolically carried away. Given that I haven’t been in temple in 20 years, I’d need more than pieces of bread, I might need a whole loaf.
I chatted with a few of the people and learned the group was from Temple Isaiah (on Pico Boulevard near Cheviot Hills). It was ironic because, decades ago, my family had not only belonged, my mother was perpetually on the temple board. I suddenly flashed back on High Holiday services that I had suffered through as a kid. For me, it was misery.
Coming in September, the High Holidays always seemed to accompany a heatwave. At 14, there was nothing I hated more than wearing a suit, tie and yarmulke (skullcap), especially in the heat. It became even worse when Temple Isaiah rented the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium for the holidays. While I was inside “schvitzing” (sweating), only blocks away, kids my age were body surfing.
One year, my buddy Don and I hatched a plan to ditch services and sneak off to the beach. Don would tell his parents that he was going to sit with my family, and I would tell my parents that I was sitting with Don’s. Amazingly, both sets of parents bought it.
After slipping out the back of the Civic, we took off our ties, jackets and yarmulkes, and rushed to the beach. We felt like complete dorks in our suits when everybody else was in swim trunks or bikinis. But we didn’t care, we were at the ocean. Our first destination was Honest John’s hot dog stand at Muscle Beach.
Honest John was a burly, ebullient former wrestler who wore khaki shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. He had a waxed Salvador Dali handlebar mustache with spiky tips at the ends that looked like they could poke your eye out. The stand was across from the rings and bars where muscle builders and gymnasts worked out. HJ’s was often frequented by other wrestlers so, for a kid, it provided a carnival-like atmosphere.
All these years later, Honest John’s is now a bike rental shop. Every time I walk by, I can almost salivate remembering John’s succulent hot dogs. He would slice them vertically and grill them, adding mustard, relish and onions, all served on a sesame bun.
As Don and I wolfed down HJ hot dogs, at that very moment, Rabbi was probably giving his sermon about the spiritual meaning of the High Holidays. We were totally oblivious. Ah, the beauty of being 14.
After lunch, we rolled up our pants and walked knee-deep into the cool ocean. We were without a care in the world. That is, until it hit us that services would be letting out. We would soon discover that, while it was fairly easy to escape out, it was not so easy to escape in.
As we were stealthily re-entering the Civic, and seemingly home free, the Cantor nabbed us. He was less than pleased, especially given my mother’s position on the temple board.
Fumbling, I nervously explained that we had gone outside to get some fresh air. Perhaps noticing a wet pant leg, or one not all the way rolled down, Cantor asked sternly, “Were your legs getting air, too?”
Ten days ago, when I saw the Temple Isaiah congregates by the waters edge it seemed idyllic. (Observing the High Holidays AND getting a tan!) I had a pang that perhaps I was born 50 years too early. But, truth be known, I had an even stronger pang for one of Honest John’s hot dogs.
Jack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.