Tom Bornstein is uniquely qualified to explain and interpret the upcoming Jewish holidays, which begin Sunday with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and end with Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy Day, which starts Tuesday, Sept. 25 at sundown.
The 59-year-old Bornstein is studying to be a rabbi, so he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the Hebrew scriptures and Jewish tradition. But he’s also a “cemeterian,” i.e., he works with the Waldheim Cemetery Co. as a customer service representative. The Waldheim offices are located at 1400 Desplaines Ave. on the south side of Forest Park.
Bornstein put on his “seminarian” hat to explain Yom Kippur, from a theological perspective.
“In classical Jewish tradition,” he began, “Yom Kippur is that 26-hour period once a year – for the last 4,000 years – which says that every human being, not just the Jews, can reconnect with God by a mixture of prayer, fasting and good deeds. Yom means day and kippur means atonement.”
He said that on that day “we atone for both our individual sins and our collective sins.” If the sin is between you and God, he added, God will forgive you, but if you have sinned against another human being, then God says that you have to work out a reconciliation between the two of you.
“God self-limits himself,” he explained. “He will forgive sins between us and him but not between us as individuals. We have to do that.”
Bornstein pointed out Jewish cemeteries are associated with the high holy days.
“On the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” he said, “it is considered to be efficacious to go to the cemetery and ask departed relatives whom you respect to intercede for you and the whole world.”
Tradition, he said, teaches that during the 26 hours of Yom Kippur observant Jews should eat or drink nothing. The fast is especially impactful, because it comes only a few days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and a time for feasting.
Referring to himself and his family as “secularly religious – i.e., tradition has a vote but not a veto,” Bornstein said that they don’t abstain from eating and drinking completely but “we try to be careful.”
Bornstein then put on his “cemeterian” hat and explained that his work allows him to observe the wide variety of ways Jews integrate their tradition into their lives.
“I see the whole spectrum of Jewish civilization from my perspective,” he remarked.
One of the things he appreciates about his tradition is its straight forward, realistic approach to death.
“Some civilizations are better than others at keeping a healthy sense of reality,” he said.
“In the classical Jewish tradition, when people die their bodies are washed, dressed in a simple white garment called a kittel, laid in a simple wooden casket and put in the ground.”
There is no attempt at denying or avoiding the fact that the body will decay.
This willingness to face the reality of death is reflected in the use of Psalm 49 during the high holy days and at funerals.
Hear this all you peoples; give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
Both low and high, rich and poor together …
For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice
That one should live on forever and never see the grave.
(New Revised Standard Version)
Or, in Bornstein’s words, “No one gets off this planet alive.”
This willingness to face the reality of death, he insisted, is not a morbid fascination with death per se, but a way to appreciate how precious life is.
After all, he noted, the Jewish toast is l’chaim!
According to Bornstein, Waldheim is the caretaker company for 85 percent of the 175,000 Jewish graves located between the Des Plaines River and Harlem Ave. in what originally were 250 distinct, small cemeteries. The remaining 15 percent are taken care of by a company called Silverman and Weiss.
Bornstein provided a window of insight into what he calls “Jewish civilization” by acknowledging that many Jews maintain “a healthy agnosticism” when it comes to death.
“Classical Judaism,” he explained, “is not terribly clear about what happens when you die.”
Some Jews believe that when you die, you go to be with God. Some believe that you remain in a kind of holding pattern until resurrected, and some don’t believe in an afterlife at all.
While appreciating the agnostic thread in the fabric of Jewish civilization, because it resists the kind of theological arrogance which claims infallible knowledge of truth, he also emphasizes the importance of tradition.
“Those with no tradition really want to reinvent the wheel,” he argued.
“The wheel has already been invented. You can adapt it, so why not err on the side of religion and religious culture?”