The High Holidays are a beautiful but complicated time for me. Besides Passover and Hanukkah, which I pretty much celebrate the same way each year, the Days of Awe are the only time when I get “the itch” to observe, the only time when I feel like if I don’t do something Jewish and highly ritualized, a piece of me is missing.
This is complicated by the fact that my husband is ideologically opposed to shul but very devoted to having a holiday meal with challah and apples and honey, and my parents have fled the New York City synagogue scene to attend services at a hippie congregation upstate, which sometimes makes it hard for me to pray with them.
This year, my job at a Jewish organization means I have real days off, time I can use to do personal writing, not for money — which is my own form of secular devotion. Furthermore a close friend got married under the Brooklyn Bridge as the gates of repentance closed on Yom Kippur, and my humanist values, not to mention my affection for my friend, gave me zero pause in attending her wedding instead of Neilah and break fast.
All this is to say that my values as a humanist, as an observer of Jewish ritual, as a daughter wife and friend, and as a writer often come into conflict with each other during the High Holidays. And it’s up to me to sort through the threads.
In past few years, I have carved out my own path of observance. I go to a few hours of services, or skip them, or eat two meals with two groups of people, or one meal with everyone. This year I had dinner with my family the night before the holiday, slipped into free services alone, ate lunch with my husband near his office, and then spent the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah all by myself, with emotional rock music playing, working on my fiction writing for hours–a form of silent meditation that felt beautiful.
It’s complicated to write my own rules for the High Holidays, to balance my love of ritual with my love of my loved ones with my own needs. And I have never been good at boundaries. And so sometimes at this time of year I actually see it, so clearly, the appeal of having iron-clad rules telling me what to do. It’s the holiday; you can’t eat in a restaurant. You can’t attend a wedding. You can’t work on Shabbat. You must go to synagogue for the holidays. I suddenly “get” why some Jews decide to be more observant. How much easier it is not to have to choose all the time.
But of course, they still are choosing — just within a more limited range, and with a more limited set of perspectives to browse. Though it would make my decisions simpler to observe the holidays more strictly, that approach can’t work. To the core of my being, I believe in drawing from Jewish and other traditions to inform my own path and philosophy, my own decisions about how to be the best moral actor in the world, and how to express my love of the world. Choice is complicated, and in the past I haven’t chosen perfectly. That it has meant some high holidays where I’ve been lonely or separated from the ones I love, or with the ones I love but separated from the rituals I crave. But I’d rather interpret religion as informing my freedom to act than constraining me. Even if I have to draw my own boundaries.