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.

Kip Kip Hurray! Atonement can be fun.

Yom Kippur is supposed to be a day of reflection, right? Well how about if this year, I feel like I’ve reflected enough for a lifetime? This blog is just the tip of the reflection iceberg. Shouldn’t I get a day off from introspection, self-flagellation (okay strong word but I like the imagery), and atonement?
Atoning for our sins. That means stopping what we’re doing and thinking hard on the wrongs we have committed. If you can’t come up with anything flagrant (lieing, cheating, stealing, etc.), that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. We Jews have the ability to dig and dig until we come up with some good shit. And by that, I mean shit.
Shit like the kind that no matter how deeply we think we’ve buried it, if we stop to put our nose to the ground – as on Yom Kippur – the smell comes wafting up.
It comes in many forms. This year, or rather yesterday, I had a different kind of Yom Kippur, representative of where I am today. Usually I go home to New Jersey to be with my family, or rather with my mother, who, like the dedicated soldier she is, goes to the same synagogue we went to as kids, even if she is to go by herself. My sisters have their own families and shul memberships now, so my mother is confronted with going by herself, without the distractions. It pained me this year to think she might go alone (note: she and my father have a good marriage but he does not pray).
But that didn’t keep me from staying in NYC this year, my first time. I went to services Friday night. It was noteworthy that I motivated to go at all, without the guilt or pressure from my family. I guess on a day as holy as Yom Kippur, I didn’t want to find out what might happen if I stayed home.  I admit I not so subtly scoured the men’s section to see if there were any eligibles. There were a few, but I figured they were probably married to one of the chicks talking and chewing gum behind me. I also think that men look a lot hotter in synagogue than if you meet them at a bar. Wait, I neglected to add “syna-goggles” to a previous blog about “goggling.” But I digress. 
So I attended with a girlfriend of mine and her lovely boyfriend – who is in the process of converting to Judaism. If he can stand sitting and standing and sitting and standing, then who am I not to?
I left early though. I got a taste, and it was enough. Walking out of a place of worship into the heart of the east village, into the throngs of young people partying and drinking on a Friday night was a disconnecting feeling. I felt alone. I thought about my ex-boyfriend, who I missed, and I felt even more alone. But then it occurred to me that since he wasn’t Jewish, it was likely I would have gone by myself anyway. If we were still together, what would he have done? Come with me? Would I have even wanted him to?
These high holidays have a knack for coming at the right time. They force us to ask questions, the kind of self-reflection that only comes due to timing. My ex-boyfriend wasn’t Jewish, and although it would be nice if he was, it was never a deal breaker for me. But I do think the fact that we broke up on Rosh Hashanah is no coincidence. It forced me to consider how I feel about being Jewish; not so much being born into it, but the practices. If my boyfriend and I were still together, what lengths would I have gone to teach him? Would it have been important to me for him to come, or would I have brushed it off, in order to avoid confrontation? In order not to make him uncomfortable? When it’s left up to me and my beliefs – when there is no one else in the picture – what values are essential enough to go out of my way for?
Since I don’t have the answers yet (it’s only been twenty-four hours), I figure that for me, Yom Kippur has delivered on the self-reflection thing. It made me stop and think, what if? What truly matters? What can I do, what can I change, moving forward?
By the way, the whole fasting thing is interesting. If you’re a single New Yorker on the run like I am, it’s the same as any other day. I was hungry, but it was just a nuisance. It was convenient that the light in my kitchen burnt out the night before, and since I don’t have a man around to change it (that’s not me being lazy, that’s me being klutzy. The last time I tried to change it I shattered the fixture and the light bulb all over the stove and floor), it was too hard for me to find my food anyway. 
But this morning, feeling renewed – and hungry as hell – I ventured out to buy a light bulb, and managed to replace it myself (and subsequently made the best omellete this kitchen has ever seen). 
What’s that phrase from the bible? Oh right. And God said, “Let there be light!”
I got me some of that.