A life reconciled

September 15, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

"For transgression between man and God, repentance on Yom Kippur brings atonement. For transgression between man and man, Yom Kippur brings no atonement until the injured party is appeased. . . ."


-- The Talmud

When this time of year rolled around back in the Polish shtetl where Solomon Milgrome grew up, a change began to move through the village.

"Children run and shout and play," said Mr. Milgrome, 91. "But overnight, everything became quiet and serious -- so serious, in preparation for Yom Kippur. This is when you fast and beg God to forgive you for all of your sins. When I was 6 years old, I didn't think I had any sins, but you sensed it. That's the way it was."

And that's the way it is once again for the observant Jews of the world, who began this year's Yom Kippur ritual of fasting and prayer at sundown last night and will continue until the sun sets this evening. For Jews who believe, today is the holiest day of the year; a somber day of fasting and prayer; a day to wipe the slate clean and fill it with good things.

Sol Milgrome has seen many a Yom Kippur since he was a boy. Through the years, as he has grown and changed, so has his experience with reconciling one's heart to man and God.

He left Poland for Palestine as a young man; in 1928, newly wed to a Baltimore-born Jewish woman, he emigrated from the Holy Land to America, sold groceries here for 42 years from a storefront at 601 Archer St., was shot three times in robberies, raised a family, was widowed, married again and was widowed again.

Retired since 1969 and three times a great-grandfather, Mr. Milgrome spends his days turning strangers into friends on long walks through the streets of Baltimore, keeps himself company at home on the violin and nurtures fidelity to a faith he learned before he could write his name.

Of his Old World Judaism, this Orthodox Jew says: "You can never shake it off."

Remembering long days of prayer in the village shul, he says: "When you are 6 and they tell you to pray and meditate, you think of things you want. The only thing in my mind back then was food. Not like in this country where children might pray for a bicycle or a pair of skates -- I never saw a bicycle. At Yom Kippur, if you already had your potatoes in the cellar with winter coming, that was a big accomplishment. You knew you wouldn't starve."

Actually stepping forward on Yom Kippur to make peace with another human being did not happen to Mr. Milgrome until he was a teen-age yeshiva student. There, he encountered a teacher with ways considerably stricter than the religious training young Sol got at home.

"The rebbe was mad because I wouldn't take 100 percent of his instructions. He said I was a 'shaigets' -- not too much Jewish," smiles Mr. Milgrome, a charming Jewish leprechaun with clear blue eyes and a great head of white hair. "I left his yeshiva, but later on, I went to shake his hand and ask forgiveness. In our shtetl, everybody had to go and forgive one another. Even if you were stubborn, if you believed that God created you, your conscience made you do it."

As a young man in his 20s, leaving home and family for secular mysteries as baffling as the mysticism of his faith, Mr. Milgrome found himself falling away from Judaism.

Out in the world, he discovered, not everyone went around forgiving one another. "In the United States, I became broad-minded, I discussed socialism and didn't associate too much with religion," he says. "But I had religion in my veins and had to adjust with my past -- is it true or is it not? I decided that there must be another dimension."

In time, his Yom Kippur observances resumed with the annual ritual of fasting to purify the body, forgiveness to ease the mind and prayer to cleanse the soul.

"I decided that it was absolutely healthy for a person to be sensibly religious -- not fanatical," Mr. Milgrome reasons. "To give the body rest by not eating is a good thing. It's healthy for people to love, and that's what Yom Kippur teaches -- to love by reaching out to forgive. I'm not a scientist, but I think our immune system needs forgiveness. We don't live long enough to hate."

Through middle age -- in dealings with his customers, family, friends, and fellows at synagogue -- he says he never hesitated to acknowledge when he was wrong.

"It never happened that I should involve myself in hatred to such a degree that I couldn't make peace with a man," he says. "There was times when I had a conflict -- mostly over interpretations [of Jewish law] -- but I always went up and said: 'The disagreement is over; from this point we go on.' "

And on he went, into his 10th decade of life, accepting "any interpretation of God that brings humanity together, regardless in whose name it's been said, and rejecting any interpretation that divides people in the name of God."

Last night, he began services at Shaarei Tfiloh on Liberty Heights Avenue with the Kol Nidre, a prayer that ushers in a day "to put aside petty thoughts and vain desires . . . [with] the sincere longing for a clear conscience, the release from the feeling of guilt . . . the desire to be absolved from vows that could not be carried out."

God willing, he expected to return at 9 a.m. today, and stay "until the stars come out at night" before breaking his fast once the sun sets tonight."Every age has its priorities," he says. "A little boy wants toys; in college it's girls and later on, family and business. But when you reach my age, you're done. My only question to God is this -- let me share some of this wisdom I've ZTC accumulated all these years. Let me tell people what I've learned by experience. Let me help them."

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