Keeping Up With Kippur

Yom Kippur fell smack in the middle of the work week this year – on a Wednesday – which is always my busiest day and the apex of the week, so observing it posed a greater challenge than usual. Unplugging from life’s whirl was going to be difficult. I’m the east coast solo-ship of my company and when I slow down, so does business. How could I turn off my phone? How could I not follow up with emails I had sent the day before, or return inquiries from clients? How could I mute the constant little voice pushing me to do more, write more, make plans with friends I haven’t seen, and tend to the endless household needs of our new apartment? And how could I turn off Facebook, which seems likes the most benign distraction when you’re trying to ignore the rumble in your stomach at 4pm? (I know, really? We’re talking 24 hours. What does that say?)

Another impediment emerged: my husband has class on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, book-ending the holiday, so he couldn’t Kip up with me. And I was on the fence about going out to NJ to be with my family for prayers and the pre and post fast meals, like I normally would do. And I wasn’t sure why. Did I want to be alone, pray alone, and have nowhere to go and shove a bagel and whitefish down my throat at 749pm?

And was I being a bad Jew by not praying alongside my family, or my husband, or anyone I knew, on the holiest day of the year? If left to my own devices (and ants in pants), would I actually jew anything?

Now that I live on the Upper West Side, I have plenty of options; many friends with their own families who would happily host me if I wanted to join, but for some reason, I didn’t reach out to them nor hear from them (undoubtedly they assumed I had my usual arrangements in place). The ones who did text me were working and not fasting, and wrote: “I’m a bad Jew!” I laughed, but then it occurred to me, why does whether we perform certain rituals dictate whether we are good or bad? What does it mean if I don’t follow my family’s prompts and the ease of it?

I married a Christian. I go to church more often than I go to synagogue (although that will change now that I’ve found a permanent home and a synagogue nearby that I love). I don’t know that it makes me a bad Jew (look how far I’ve come!*). On the contrary, I’m connecting with God now more than I ever have when I went to Jewish high-school and wore the appropriate length skirts and didn’t eat shrimp.

So I decided to observe Yom Kippur by myself this year and see what I’d do when not reacting to anyone else.
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At twenty minutes before sundown, after an intensely busy work day, I inhaled a (kosher) turkey sandwich and leftover fettucini, lit candles and said the blessing, then put on a skirt and sneakers and walked the ten quiet blocks down West End Avenue to a synagogue I’d been to last year (coincidentally it was before we moved ten blocks away). The fall air was crisp, the huge old buildings and brownstones projecting majesty and comfort. I found an unreserved seat in the back pew of the balcony and followed the text without any interruptions, or the urge to tell a story I just thought of to my sister. I stood and swayed and sang along with the female cantor as her voice swelled through the vaulted breath of space. I wondered if people walking outside could hear it too.

I did miss my husband, but in lieu of his attendance, there didn’t seem to be a reason for filler. I followed the words on the page, heartened to realize I remembered most of the Hebrew prayers. I discovered that trivial aggravations, petty chatter, snap judgments about people whose behavior makes me bristle (because they mirror my own suppressed flaws), and work problems from the day — melted away. The Rabbi’s sermon, about the difference between being “religious” by observing ritual, versus the importance of having spiritual depth and moral purpose resonated with me (and made me feel better when I cheated with a shot of espresso the following morning). Rather than cutting out after an hour and change like I usually do, I stayed until the end (a whole two hours), then walked home leisurely, past some of my people who were on their way home too. The world felt different, in a way titled outward, expansively, but also titled inward. I felt centered.

My husband had just arrived home when I did. Rather than unwinding in front of the TV, we sat together on the couch and I told him about my evening. We talked about the commonalities between Christianity and Judaism, and the beauty of the faith – the spirituality – that we share, and our shared moral purpose. I could see him light up to witness his wife motivated and fulfilled by connecting with God.

The next morning, after my husband and I walked the beast otherwise known as Gemma, I did a short pop-in in synagogue again, followed by a two-hour sleep that could have been a coma because I learned later that the dog-walker came in twice and couldn’t wake neither me or Gemma (a good guard dog she is not). Gemma and I woke refreshed (our eyes locking, “What time is it?”), and as I eagerly walked to synagogue for the Day of Atonement’s “closing of the gate,” I realized that maybe I’m not a bad Jew afterall. Or a good one, whatever that means. What matters is halting, connecting, and striving to do better in our individualized way, whatever that means to Jew.

For some insight into how far I’ve actually come, here are some posts from previous Yom Kippur’s where this Cougel was clearly in need of atonement:

In 2010, Cougel licks her wounds after a breakup and goes J-single mingling (aka synagoggling) in synagogue. KIP KIP HURRAY!

A year later, still single, Cougel kicks off her fast with a burrito and per Mom’s suggestion (“Go to the Soho Synagogue! You must be with your people!”), goes synagoggling again. ATONEMENT, CHANGE, AND KUGEL .

Four years later, Cougel celebrates the high holidays with her Christian husband.

Instead of Labor on Labor Day, I Got Something Else

A week ago, Labor Day weekend beckoned happily. Four days off with no work intrusions, where I could focus on a new writing project; a TV show that I am developing ala Cougel. I needed to make a dent in the TV pilot script – a format that is different than book writing, as it’s not internal but rather visual, and I’m rusty. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve written anything in that format. The rules are very specific, the page count intentional, the writing sparing. My goal was to get started.

But as the famous maxim goes, “Man plans, God laughs.” My beloved cousin, who is like a brother to my two sisters and me (we grew up together in NJ) was getting married that weekend. To the love of his life, the two of them having journeyed long and far, from rock bottom and back up, their paths crossing and mis-crossing until it was their time – to have arrived at this significant moment. He proposed to her on the roof of my former apartment building, overlooking Manhattan’s skyline at sunset. The tears started then.

When a family member of mine gets married, this means two things:
1) A plane load of Israelis; Aunts and uncles, and more cousins. My father has three brothers and their children are also like siblings to me. We spent every summer together in Israel since I was a toddler, playing soccer in dusty yards, climbing trees (I always had to be the first one to the top), drinking coffee (in Israel it’s not growth stunting), and pigging out on humus and pita at midnight. The kind of bonding stuff one does before cell phones got in the way.
2) Lots of meals before and after the wedding, which includes hugging, hair touching and sniffing, shoulder squeezing, and eating.

My cousin got married on a Thursday night. To which some people remarked, “Who gets married on a Thursday?”

Since it was before the holiday weekend, this didn’t seem unusual to me – it seemed smart. But I realized the rationale behind it was that my cousin and his fiancé are observant Jews. So Friday and Saturday are out. And Sunday is for rest (or in my case, occasionally Church).

The wedding was in a word – magical. Transcendent. There is a palpable energy when two souls who are meant-to-be come together, and you can feel it in the air like a blanket of electricity. The Jewish rituals and customs, which I haven’t witnessed or participated in in years, were elevated and substantiated as my cousin stood under the chuppah with his eyes closed in reverence, absorbing the magnitude of the moment. My older sister’s husband who is a Rabbi had the honor of marrying them.

The women sat on one side, and the men – including my husband who sat beside my father and my uncle and brother in law – on the other. As I strained to watch the ceremony (and document it…I’m the neurotic self appointed videographer of every event), I leaned across my two sisters laps, tears in all of our eyes, and I could feel an otherness watching us from above (or maybe it was my dad sneaking pics of his three girls from the other side).

The dancing – the crazy sweaty manic dancing – came after. Chairs were thrust in the air, and sometimes people too. There was lots of horah-ing. I watched my husband, yarmulka on his head as he swirled around with his arms around my cousins, his face beaming (this was before he spontaneously dove to the floor in his suit and did “the worm,” or in his case “the python”). When he and I got married almost two years ago (say what?), the Israeli fleet was there too, but this time we were able to bond and mesh with them.

That Saturday, my husband and I hosted the entire chamoolah (Yiddish for ‘glob of love’) in our new home. The door kept opening to reveal more cousins, and their children, and aunts and uncles. I managed to prepare food (by prepare I mean make tuna from a can and bagels and lox my mother brought) that was enough for 28 people. My relatives spread out on the floor, on the various couches, and my uncles and their wives were clustered in corners in deep conversation. One of my uncles fell into a peaceful sleep on the chaise lounge, his wife draped over him. They stayed until 4:30 (an Israeli style “Sabbath lunch”), and then my husband and I went with another cousin and his girlfriend for a walk to Riverside Park, where we had cocktails overlooking the Hudson River. Afterwards, we let our dog off her leash on a grassy hill, to see what her old bones could do, and she did not disappoint; she zoomed and bopped around like a puppy.

And then on Labor Day, I met my sister and her daughter who just turned 13 – and her four friends in matching white jeans, leather Vans, and braces – for a birthday lunch in Soho. In the evening, the newlyweds came over for a toast, my cousin holding a ram’s horn (shofar) that riveted my dog, until my husband blew it effortlessly as if he had been a Rabbi in another life (or a Viking).

It occurred to me that I hadn’t written a word of my new project all weekend as I had planned. And I didn’t think twice about it (okay, maybe I did a little).

But I realized, to have the opportunity to host my beloved chamoolah – to have this rare opportunity to be with my family, many of who I haven’t seen in over two years, and to celebrate life and love, is more meaningful than writing anything.

Except maybe in a blog post.