I was sipping Champagne and presiding over witness signatures on a marriage license under the shade of a redwood tree as the sun started dropping over the ocean below the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The newlyweds (my friends) and their families exchanged embraces and congratulations following the heartfelt wedding ceremony I had just officiated. The only catch: It was during the time I would’ve normally been standing in synagogue, feeling a little woozy during Neilah as the effects of fasting came on strong.
When my friends asked me, months earlier, if I would get ordained and officiate their wedding — for which I was instructed to leave religion and spirituality out entirely — I deliberated for a few days. I’m not an observant Jew; I don’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat, and I celebrate holidays only selectively. But Yom Kippur is a day I have taken off of work, fasted and gone to synagogue every year of my life. To go to a wedding instead seemed like it would be perhaps too dramatic a leap toward secularism on too important a day.
This is the first post in a series by Johnna Kaplan exploring aspects of Jewish life outside of her own experience.
Although I am proud to define myself as Jewish, that definition centers on what I care about and how I think, not so much what I do.
There are many traditionally Jewish things, like, say, swinging a chicken over my head at Yom Kippur, that I have no immediate desire to experience. But others, for some reason, I feel badly for not doing, the same way I feel bad about not regularly using eye cream. I wondered what would happen if I tried doing a few of these neglected Jewish things.
Would I somehow feel differently afterwards? Would I feel more involved or legitimate, like a “better” Jew? And why did I feel like I should do any of these things in the first place?
I decided to start with something simple, or so I thought: lighting Shabbat candles. I had done this a few times before, when living with more observant Jewish people, but it was a rare occurrence, and one that I’d never tried in a space of my own.
As it turned out, lighting candles is not as simple as touching a match to a wick.
First, I missed the Friday I had intended to light my candles. So I had to wait a week. Jewish traditions, unlike so much of modern life, can’t be shifted around for one’s own convenience. Given my unpredictable, work-at-home freelance career, it’s not at all uncommon for my “week” to last for 14 straight days before I decide it’s my “weekend” on a Tuesday. Shabbat candles, I felt, could not be lit on a Tuesday. So I waited.
Every Seder has its own story. There was Passover circa 1960, when Uncle Buddy stood in for Elijah. Or the Passover of 1985, when we started the Seder as we got up from sitting shiva for my father. I will never forget the Passover Seders when each of our children recited the Four Questions for the first time. Or the Passover when our first grandson made his appearance, and we all were transformed in our familial relationships and identities.
But no matter what the backstory, for each Seder it was clearly understood where the event should take place. For example, in my childhood, my parents lovingly prepared and led the Seder in our apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, which was filled with family members and friends. And for the past 30-odd years, the Seder has taken place at our home on Long Island, with our own children, grandchildren, my mother-in-law and friends showing up faithfully each year, celebrating amidst the cacophony of generations.
Of course, there were occasional outliers, like the year our older daughter got married and she and her husband made their own Seder. “So, are the newlyweds coming to you this year?” friends asked with a smile. I forced a smile back. “They are making their own Seder. Isn’t that amazing and beautiful?” I opined. I felt it was true, but another part of me wasn’t quite ready for the separation. (Ironically, I then remembered that my husband and I had also created our own gestalt-experiential vegetarian Seder for our friends in graduate school when we were first married.)
Eight days without leavened bread is no easy task for any Jew. No whole-wheat bagels with scallion cream cheese! No chewy chocolate chip cookies! No soy sauced-drenched rice! But it is especially trying for me; I am 29 years old and eight years recovered from a decade-long eating disorder. Each year, Passover’s food restrictions — a triggering behavior for any recovered bulimic or anorexic — challenges my footing.
I grew up in a reform Jewish home, and my parents encouraged my siblings and me to forge our own paths regarding Jewish customs and rituals. I quite liberally pick and choose from Halachic law at my leisure; for instance, I fast each Yom Kippur and keep each Passover. In order to honor these food-related traditions, I embrace pikuach nefesh (the saving of a soul or life) because, even though I am fully recovered, it lets me cut myself slack and ensure that my health takes precedence over Pesach’s rigorous demands.
While my eating disorder began as anorexia at age 11, it morphed into bulimia when I finished eighth grade, continuing until I was 21. I inhaled food as a metaphor for my emotional deprivation, then purged it in an effort to stop feeling so overwhelmed. Because this binge/purge cycle dominated my adolescent development, restricting food in my adult life — like bread on Passover — can reactivate these feelings, especially during emotionally volatile times. Fasting, on the other hand, doesn’t stimulate the now very ancient desire to starve myself.
As a Jewish woman who prefers work to cooking, the Hebrew calendar determines most of the time I spend in the kitchen. Certainly I cook year round — especially for shabbos — but for me, serious cooking happens over the Jewish holidays. While most Jewish women would probably claim Pesach as the ultimate in holiday work, I am most challenged by the fall holidays, when my professional world collides with my Jewish world.
In the heart of the summer months, from Shavuos until mid-Elul, I don’t do much cooking. I take summers off from teaching English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and I use that time to study, write and catch up on reading. And without festive holidays all summer, most substantial cooking goes on hiatus.
But by late summer, I am swept up by a whirlwind of obligations as the new college semester crashes into the fall holidays. The Jewish calendar calls me back to my kitchen, but I’m no foodie. I am a simple cook, and so I pull out my worn 1987 edition of Joan Nathan’s “The Children’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen.” From my dusty spiral recipe notebook, I peel apart recipes glued with dried honey and find holiday menus and to-do lists that go back over 25 years. At the top of each page of notebook paper is a list of Rosh Hashanah guests, written in my hand or my daughter’s; I leaf through each one, noting the passing of time and family.
For me, this period has always been a time of balance and reflection. While I weigh in on the past year and ask people I may have wronged for forgiveness, composition papers pile up, awaiting my thoughtful grading. At least I can work at home and hold Skype office hours while honey cakes turn golden brown in the oven.
The holiday weeks continue compressing my workweek into precious few days. It’s a month-long accordion existence — from work, to preparing at home, to work, to the holiday itself, to shul, and then all over again. I find ways to make it work, but when Simchat Torah ends, I’m ready for what comes next. Not only do we hear Breisheit on Shabbat, but we also welcome my favorite month of the year: Cheshvan.
Of all the holidays I’ve never observed, Sukkot has always looked like the most fun. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who celebrated the autumn festival; my awareness of it came entirely from reading. Sukkot would have seemed exotic if it wasn’t somehow so familiar, a combination of Thanksgiving and being allowed to sleep on the back porch.
Sukkot is known as “the season of our rejoicing,” and though I appreciate the story of the ancient Israelites’ miraculous survival in the desert, what strikes me most is the holiday’s minimalism. Though Jewish law doesn’t forbid you from building an enormous sukkah and filling it with all your belongings, practicality dictates that most sukkahs are small, just a place to eat, (optionally) sleep, hang out surrounded by harvest-themed decorations and, well, rejoice.
So it’s not quite as odd as it sounds that, this year, when I noticed Sukkot was approaching, I thought of my apartment. Sure, it cannot be folded up and stored away, and its roof is neither constructed from natural materials nor partially open to the stars. But my current home in New London, Conn. — and almost every other unit I’ve ever lived in anywhere — is small, basic and, dare I say, sukkah-like. To a lot of people’s consternation, I’m happy with that.
I am hardly the first to make a connection between minimalism, happiness and Sukkot. And I would not be surprised if others had associated this idea with broader debates about American materialism and whether ever-growing McMansions really provide personal fulfillment. (The maximalists seem to be winning at the moment: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average size of a new single family house went up 88 square feet from 2010 to 2011.)
As a freelancer who works from home, I can claim a portion of my living space as a tax deduction. But last year, when I told my tax preparer my apartment’s size (under 200 square feet), she didn’t believe me. She even went online and pulled up my building’s floor plan from municipal records, triumphantly informing me that in fact my place was over four times as large as I’d said it was. “But that’s the entire floor,” I said. “That includes two other apartments, one twice as large as mine, as well as a hallway and staircase.” She looked skeptical, and grudgingly typed in a number about twice my actual square footage.
This Sukkot, there is a religious battle going on in the city of Modi’in, Israel, and as often happens in such battles, it is being fought over women’s bodies.
It actually started this past Passover, when the open, mixed city of Modi’in was inundated with visitors from the neighboring ultra-Orthodox town of Modi’in Illit, also known as Kiryat Sefer. The primary attraction for the visitors was Park Anabe, a beautiful expanse that sits 200 meters from my house. While it’s taken 10 years to complete, the park is now filled with playgrounds, grassy knolls, treks, a bike-path, an amphitheater and most importantly, a 14,000 square liter lake with fountains, fish and a variety of boating. Park Anabe is a central part of Modi’in life — members of my family visit regularly — and contributes significantly to the sense of quiet tranquility that characterizes Modi’in.
Since the lake opened in 2010, that tranquility has been interrupted each Passover and Sukkot when thousands of haredi visitors flock to Modi’in to use the park, which offers wholesome entertainment, can accommodate large groups of people, and is mostly free (only the boating and ice creams cost money). But the masses of haredi visitors, who bring with them a culture that is anything but sanguine, often make it difficult for Modi’in residents who are not haredi to find a patch of grass to sit on.
For the most part, Modi’in residents have expressed a mixture of annoyance and understanding about the situation. They’re irritated at what feels like a major cultural disruption but happy that they are living in an open city in a democratic country. That the park is free and that it is such a great attraction is nice. Lucky us. But the holidays end up feeling like a massive invasion. For those weeks when we cannot use our own park, is this just a small price to pay for quality of life?
Such were the general sentiments until last Passover, when haredi visitors started to make demands of the women on Modi’in. Suddenly, things began to change. First, a woman who was performing in the park was asked to leave the stage by haredi audience members — a request to which she unfortunately acquiesced, setting a bad precedent. Then, a well-known local reporter went to the park dressed in her usual clothing (jeans and a tank-top), and was made to feel uncomfortable by other park-users. She then wrote about the experience in the local newspaper. Calls to charge entry or close the park to non-residents were posted on blogs and Facebook, but Modi’in mayor Haim Bibas did not heed the calls. At least, not at first.