We are currently in the thick of what I like to call Teshuva Season. Starting with Rosh Chodesh Elul and continuing through Hoshana Rabbah, this time of year gives us a full seven weeks of reflection, repentance, and self-reproach. It is known as a time to mend our relationships with others and with God, our chance to beg for forgiveness lest our names be excluded from the Book of Life for the coming year.
As someone who recovered from depression and had, at one point in time, a very low sense of self-worth, this time of year can be deeply triggering for me. Year after year we are taught to repent for our sins, leading many of us to feel that the more we suffer over our mistakes, the greater our chances will be of deserving forgiveness and salvation. I remember growing up in school and hearing about how we needed to beg God to spare us our lives. I remember hating myself for feeling like I wasn’t strong enough to fully commit to certain mitzvot. I remember thinking during Yom Kippur services that there was no way I deserved to live another year because of the many sins I felt I had done. No one ever said these things to me, and yet these were the messages I absorbed from my teachers every September.
Many people can use this feeling of guilt in a way that is healthy and constructive, turning them into powerful motivators for change. I am not one of those people. If I’m not careful and disciplined with my thoughts, my guilt turns into a bitter tirade against myself. In this way the Yom Kippur craze can become a tool for masochism that is sneakily disguised as religious fervor. Even without an active behavior, the self-loathing mentality is one that indulges those inner demons I work so hard to silence and yet find so difficult to ignore.
Over the recent (and somewhat endless) round of high holidays this year, I came to some disconcerting realizations about my attitude to shul-going as a woman and a feminist.
Coming from an orthodox background, I have realized that however much of a feminist I am, I still don’t feel comfortable in prayer settings of other denominations where real equality reigns. It’s a dismaying head-versus-heart dilemma, and I’m trapped by it. Why is it that I, a supposed 21st century feminist, still feel more at home in a segregated prayer service than at an egalitarian service where women are fully active participants, not just onlookers?
Again and again, I confess that I betray my feminist sensibilities by seeking out the comfort of orthodox shul settings. And I find myself squirreling away quietly behind the mechitza (the partition separating men and women) in the women’s section, instead of joining in the services as an equal participant, and as a real feminist should.
This year, for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, my husband and I chose to attend a small hasidic (“ultra-orthodox”) shul in our neighborhood of Riverdale, in the Bronx. We usually go to a more modern orthodox shul, which is very large and can be quite impersonal. But I yearned for a more intimate prayer experience — and also hoped the services might not drag on as long!
In spite of myself, and in spite of the huge mechitza looming up in front of me, and in spite of the old-world divisions between the sexes, I enjoyed the whole experience. There was this authentic chasidic warmth in the air. The rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) made a point of introducing herself and getting to know me. All the other women were very friendly, and the rebbetzin’s little grandchildren ran riot, creating a lively atmosphere. Not forgetting, of course, the rebbetzin’s delicious honey cake served during the kiddush at the conclusion of the services. The whole experience, was, for lack of a better word, heimish.
Every year just before Rosh Hashanah, my mother and I engage in a ritual attempt to approximate my grandmother’s gefilte fish recipe. The recipe itself is an approximation. She cobbled it together from other Holocaust survivors, and perhaps gleaned a few tips from women in a displaced persons’ camp, perhaps remembering bits from what her own mother made do with in her Polish shtetl kitchen. It goes something like this: one-third buffalo carp, one-third pike, one-third whitefish. Naturally, I can’t divulge the whole thing.
When my grandmother retired to Los Angeles from New York in the 1970s, she navigated a whole new Jewish culinary landscape. For her fish, she settled upon Elat Market in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, a store known for its quality, pricing and occasional violence. My mother and I went shopping with her from time to time, and I witnessed a side of my grandmother’s personality I’d never before seen.
We waited in line outside the store for up to half an hour before it opened, sometimes longer if the demand was so strong that the market needed to institute crowd control measures. When we finally made it inside, my grandmother gathered up all 4 feet 10 inches of herself and marched towards the fish counter, deftly and determinedly swerving around the wayward shopping carts for which this market is notorious (seriously — check out the Yelp reviews).
The fish counter swarmed with diminutive elderly women calling out to the Spanish-speaking fishmongers in complete chaos, in a half-dozen languages, each brutally jockeying for attention. “I said no heads,” one might insist in Farsi. “Three pounds, not one third of a pound,” another would complain in Hebrew. Russian wasn’t uncommon. Once, I’m almost certain we heard two women arguing in Ladino. Back in the 1980s, my grandmother wasn’t the only one with a Yiddish accent. She elbowed her way to the front of the mob in a way that I’ve come to believe only a survivor can.
The Jewish New Year is a time for judgment and reflection, not celebration. We gather to take stock and consider all of the ways we have fallen short, sinned and transgressed. We beat our chests, and each pounding represents a sin that either we — or some other member of the community — committed over the previous year.
I will sit in synagogue this September not only as a Jew, but also as a wife and relatively new mother. I will consider my relationship with God as well as my relationship with my one-year-old daughter, Lila. Have I been a good parent this past year? Am I a successful parent? At first blush, those two adjectives may seem interchangeable. And superficially speaking, they are, but they vocalize very different metrics.
Bad parenting may be easiest to recognize; it likely involves abuse or neglect — and if my Twitter timeline is to be believed, enrolling your kids in “Toddlers and Tiaras”-inspired pageants. However, being a “good” parent is much more complex, encompassing many shades of gray.
Every child — even within a single family — is different. Just as a batch of pancakes is made from the same ingredients yet each individual pancake is a slight variation on the others, siblings may share the same DNA but they grow into strikingly different people. “Good,” I would posit, is best for evaluating those so-called ingredients which are consistent (unlike outcomes, which vary). That variation makes “good” parenting nebulous and subjective, but the term is most useful for capturing the current, daily choices that define our own parent-child relationships.
Have we adapted our lives to prioritize our children and their needs, rather than squeezing them into our pre-existing lives? What routines create a smooth rhythm for our families? What values do we teach through our words and deeds?
When your synagogue attendance can only be described as sporadic, a few panicked thoughts and pangs of regret enter your mind as you step into shul for Rosh Hashanah services. These include, but are not limited to: 1.) I should have volunteered to teach Torah for Tots because they get to eat apples and honey and speak English 2.) My new year’s resolution is to kiss up to the rabbi’s secretary, so we don’t get these nosebleed seat assignments again 3.) I hope people think I look pretty in my new dress.
The latter of these concerns is also the most emotionally complex; it is as fraught with hang-ups as a kugel is with raisins. Rosh Hashanah is my favorite Jewish holiday. I love the time I spend with my family, celebrating the New Year and the act of tashlich, symbolically casting off my sins. Unfortunately, while I treasure these aspects of Rosh Hashanah, the act of attending my childhood synagogue has become a neurotic fashion show of my insecurities.
That’s not meant to be a convoluted psychotic metaphor. Rosh Hashanah has actually become a personal fashion show whenever I return to the synagogue of my youth. I’ve known what I am wearing to this year’s Rosh Hashanah services (on Monday, September 17) since early July. As soon as I tried on this dress all those months ago, I knew it would be the perfect thing to wear. It flatters my figure, but is still modest. Essentially, it conveys to my fellow congregants that I’m an attractive, confident, put-together young woman. Or so I hope. But why do I put so much thought into clothes during a holiday that is meant to be spent making resolutions to better myself, reflecting on my sins and, above all, being grateful to God for blessing me with another year with my loved ones?
We all have our own emotional landmines that evoke the painful, awkward memories of childhood and adolescence. To spare you the details, I was the overweight, quiet kid in a Hebrew school classroom with girls who knew how to wear a Juicy Couture tracksuit with pizzazz and never invited me to their bat mitzvahs. Eventually I grew up, discovered welcoming Jewish communities in college and young adulthood, and realized pastel velour tracksuits had a limited shelf life. Still, the moment I visit my childhood synagogue, the insecurities come rushing back.