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.
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:
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 .