Peace Agreement: Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat with U.S. president Jimmy Carter at Camp David, 1978. // Copyright Wikimedia Commons
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ addresses at this year’s United Nations General Assembly were, well, not the friendliest.
Netanyahu accused Abbas of war crimes.
Abbas accused Israel of genocide.
Netanyahu accused Abbas of executing civilians.
Abbas accused Netanyahu undermining peace efforts.
You get the picture.
This weekend marks the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Traditionally, in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, Jews engage in deep introspection. We each look at our relations with others in the world, and asking their forgiveness, because, according to scripture, only then are we fit to appear before God and ask his forgiveness as well.
This weekend also marks the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. During Eid al-Adha, practicing Muslims sacrifice sheep and calves to commemorate the patriarch, Ibrahim, or Abraham, following God’s commandments. In addition to these sacrifices, on Eid, family members travel around to visit and greet each other, and mend and renew interpersonal relations.
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.
Rosh Hashanah prayers, as depicted in the 18th century // Copyright Wikimedia Commons
My father was buried on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 2002 and the holiday began just a few surreal hours after I stood at his open grave. The shiva — the seven-day period of formal mourning — was cancelled to usher in the New Year. With a truncated shiva behind me, I debuted as a congregational mourner on Rosh Hashanah. It was the first time that I said the Mourner’s Kaddish. Arguably, the busiest day of the year in the synagogue, I stood up in front of 800 people to recite the Kaddish — effectively a love song to God whom I felt didn’t deserve my adoration.
The feminist, poet and liturgist Marcia Falk had a similar experience. In 1978, her father Abraham Abbey Falk died midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and her grieving was cut short by the advent of the Day of Atonement. After three days of shiva, Falk braced herself to mourn in a crowded synagogue. But the public face she tried to show faded away when she was confronted with the somber, terrifying words of the Un’taneh Tokef. The thousand year-old prayer, written by an unknown author in Northern Europe, is central to the Yom Kippur liturgy.
In a recent presentation at Brandeis University sponsored by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Falk noted that her ambivalent relationship with the Un’taneh Tokef was the inspiration for her latest book, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, And Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season.. “The Un’taneh Tokef” she said, “is a listing, a repentance. The message it conveyed to me, five days after losing my father, was that if he had been a pious, righteous and repentant man the decree would have been averted and he would not be dead. No one actually believed that, but nonetheless the words were hurtful and unhelpful.”
From the moment I woke up on the morning of my first Yom Kippur in September of 2010, a heavy ache sat right at my forehead, some combination of early hunger pangs, a minor hangover, and caffeine withdrawal. When I later sat next to my boyfriend and his family at their New Brunswick, New Jersey synagogue, I thought of nothing but the fact that my eyeballs were sore. Occasionally I would sneak into the bathroom, sit down on the toilet and rest my head on top of the cold metal sanitary napkin dispenser. So this is atonement.
During a brief respite between morning and afternoon services, I accompanied the family outside. We stood on the steps to Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Jersey beneath the direct glare of a sun I found annoyingly bright. I grimaced and said something uncreative about my headache.
“We can go get you coffee right now,” my boyfriend said.
“No,” I insisted, “I’m fine.”
My boyfriend wasn’t trying to tempt me, but rather giving an option he felt I had: because I wasn’t (and still am not) Jewish, I wasn’t required to fast. It hadn’t ever occurred to me, though that I wouldn’t partake. Though I hadn’t yet begun my conversion process, a part of me already considered the possibility Judaism was my faith, so I wanted to experience everything that an authentic member of the Tribe did. If I felt truly horrified at hearing my sins during the reciting of Al Chet, if the shofar did awaken some spark in me that wanted to be better, then perhaps I was, at last, home.
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 third post in a series by Johnna Kaplan exploring aspects of Jewish life outside of her own experience.
I have always felt compelled to fast on Yom Kippur — just not compelled enough. Usually I either forget what day it is until it’s too late or simply give up at the first hint of dizziness. This year, I determined to fast properly. Well, almost.
6:00 a.m. I begin by cheating and drink some water. Water is not allowed on Yom Kippur. But Yom Kippur, as I’ve always understood it, is pretty good about recognizing the spirit rather than the letter of its laws. It’s clear that you do not have to fast if, for example, you are sick. I am not sick, but I know I will not be able to last 25 hours without a sip of water. (Come to think of it I might be sick. I could have some horrible disease that just hasn’t been diagnosed yet.)
8:30 a.m. There really isn’t any point in getting out of bed if you can’t have coffee, is there?
9:00 a.m. I realize I’ve been conflating fasting with all sorts of other Yom Kippur observances, such as praying and not showering. I feel much better when I remind myself that it’s acceptable to pick and choose. In fact it’s possible that Judaism and Jewishness in any form might not have survived if some picking and choosing was not inherent the start.
A year and a half ago, when I found out the man who caused my brother’s death had died, heavy emotion flooded my body. Not because it made me miss my brother, Josh, who was hit by this man’s car and killed in October 2002. Not because it made me envision the rendition of the accident I’d constructed by hearsay: a teenager’s illegal U-Turn prompted this man — described in his obituary as “ethical to his core” — to swerve. And not because it made my grief suffocate my throat.
This elderly man, although responsible for this tragic accident, had oddly become, at least for me, one of my brother’s many legacies.
It was as if the man’s being alive meant part of Josh was still breathing. He was the last person to engage with Josh before his head hit the side of a building. He sustained a traumatic brain injury and became unconscious; his heart stopped the next morning. It’s almost like this man had the last conscious communication with Josh. And now he, too, was gone.
This is the seventh in a Sisterhood series on women, apologizing and Yom Kippur.
I didn’t know about the custom of asking mechila — for forgiveness — when I was growing up. When I eventually learned about it, early in my career writing about religion, I thought it was a great concept. The message, after all, is a powerful one: We are responsible for rectifying the wrongs we have done, intentionally or not, that in any way hurt the people in our lives. It seemed obvious to me that anyone could see the value of asking for forgiveness. That is, until I started approaching people.
When I first began asking people for forgiveness, my request was usually met with graciousness and sometimes even thoughtful engagement, but one of the first people I approached was my boss at the time. Sincerely, perhaps naively, I asked if he would forgive me if I had done anything to hurt or offend him. His response was to laugh in my face.
Being neurotic, I of course thought it was because there was something wrong with my request. Years later, when I asked him about it, he said he laughed because he just didn’t know what to say. That was a relief; it was his limitation, not mine.
In the years since, I have refined my approach, and now limit it to the people with whom I am closest: family and dear friends.
This is the fourth in a Sisterhood series on women, apologizing and Yom Kippur.
Growing up in a Chabad community, it was only natural that the first few weeks of school were dedicated to learning about the High Holidays. I specifically remember the array of activities that would unfold in preparation for Yom Kippur.
In first and second grade, our teachers carved out a few hours for us to create “forgive me” cards for our siblings and parents. It was a fun activity and one that was met with excitement and joy. A drawing of a little girl in tears with the words, I’m sorry! Please forgive me, was already photocopied and arranged in a neat pile; all we had to do was cut, glue and paste our sad girls onto colored construction paper. One card would be handed to my parents for not listening before dinner, another to my brother for destroying his Lego castle, another to my sisters for not sharing my Barbie dolls.
In middle school, we had to call three friends the night before Yom Kippur and ask for forgiveness for all of our wrongdoings. It was a less than thrilling activity — until I realized we could knock out the apologies in a few moments and then return to the important stuff like boys and what to wear for services.
In high school, there were no assignments or clear directives, but the High Holiday routine of teshuva (repentance) was already imprinted on my mind. My friends and I often tossed out quickie apologies between dissecting biblical verses and exploring talmudic arguments.
While slightly different at each stage, this pre-Yom Kippur ritual was a much-anticipated release; I could let go of my wrongdoings and hide any disappointment or shame I felt under a pile of pretty cards and phone calls. It was a good start but just that — a start.
This is the third in a Sisterhood series on women, apologizing and Yom Kippur.
So we are now in the Days of Awe, a time of reconciliation and repentance for us Jews. This process requires a real willingness to take personal inventory of where you are right now and the strength and courage to actually get rid of the junk you are bound to discover. Unfortunately, I am completely incapable of doing that right now.
You see, I am “expecting,” a phrase that all too well captures the deep feeling of anticipation and, ultimately, distraction, that accompanies pregnancy. Being with child has put me in a state of mind that only allows me to reach forward or backward, but has completely robbed me of my ability to engage with who I am in the present. I find myself constantly contemplating what kind of mother I will be and what kind of child I was, but never who I am now.
Okay, yes, my mind is partially cluttered with the small stuff, like navigating all the products I apparently need in order to provide adequate care for the little one. (I am somewhat ashamed of the long hours I have spent online reading reviews of bassinets and discussion board conversations about whether or not I should put blackout shades in the nursery.) And then there is the time I have spent on less superficial inquiries into different parenting methods and which ones I think might work for me.
But for the most part the monkeys in my head are far more occupied with the more ineffable aspects of motherhood, the ones that many have trouble describing but can understand from a look of resignation followed by a mutually nourishing kiss on the cheek.
This is the second in a Sisterhood series on women, apologizing and Yom Kippur.
A few days after I brought my newborn daughter home from the hospital, I started crying. All the time. When I made toast. When I took a shower. It wasn’t that I was depressed, it just seemed that all that excess water and hormones needed a way out. I was warned about this, but still, after each time, I would turn to my husband and apologize.
Never mind that I had just gone through the most physically and emotionally challenging event of my life. Or that I was bleeding and lactating and my body was doing things I hadn’t known possible.
Can you see where I’m going with this?
As girls and then as women and then as mothers there’s something that makes us feel like we need to apologize. We apologize to make others feel better. Or when we’re unsure of ourselves.
Now that my daughter is 3 and heading off into the world — or at least to preschool — we’ve talked about sharing, manners and apologizing. I’m starting to really think about what I want to teach her about these things, especially the apologizing part.
This is the first in a Sisterhood series on women, apologizing and Yom Kippur.
Forget your bat mitzvah, learning to drive and losing your virginity: College graduation is the one moment that truly signifies your entrance into the “real world.” Now you’re actually a grown-up, and it’s going to be a bumpy ride. At least, this is the impression I’ve received from every college commencement address I’ve ever watched. They usually involve some sort of discussion of the existential crisis of what to do with one’s life, plus some mildly witty cracks about struggling to pay rent and learning to cook. Yet, as consistently as certain themes and jokes are rehashed in these speeches, there’s one thing no one warns you about when it comes to your entrance into adulthood: coveting.
Since I graduated from college last year, my most striking post-collegiate realization was not that I should have taken an econ class or that it’s no longer socially acceptable to store vodka under my bed. Rather, it is that I have a frighteningly strong capacity for jealousy, competition and envy.
Ironically, being surrounded by 1,600 of my peers did not bring out my green-eyed monster. College provided a clear way to measure my progression; grades in classes, leadership positions in clubs and invitations to parties on the weekend were all the validation I needed to assure myself that I was doing the right things. And as long as I was happy, I (mostly) didn’t look to others.
When you leave college, the measures of success and validation are not only nebulous (especially if, like me, you graduate with no idea of what you want to do), but it becomes pretty clear that some — maybe many — of your peers have jumped WAY ahead of you. They have better jobs (or in my case, they just have jobs). They have apartments, some of which are shockingly spacious. They nab the article for the publication you’ve adored since high school. They find the perfect significant other to bring to alumni events.
I didn’t go to synagogue for Yom Kippur’s concluding services on Saturday afternoon. Instead, I went to Steve Jobs’ house.
I got out of my skirt, put on some sweatpants and biked over to his house, just a few blocks away from mine in Palo Alto, California. There, I joined the crowd that had come to pay their respects to the late technology visionary who birthed and led Apple.
It was strange to see his familiar house, with its rustic brick walls and low-hanging slate roof reminiscent of the Elizabethan-era countryside, turned into a memorial. A corner which I had passed so many times on foot, on bike and by car, was now filled with flower bouquets, cards, posters and other personal offerings like sweatshirts with the Apple logo and used iPods inscribed in Sharpie marker with words of thanks to Jobs. Most poignant were the many apples with bites taken out of them lined up on the low wooden fence surrounding the small apple orchard that stands in front of the house.
For many years now, since I learned about the practice of mechila, or asking for forgiveness, I’ve taken it seriously, using the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days to reflect on the ways in which I know I’ve fallen short. My personal al chet, or confession, is a long one — as I think about a comment that inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings, about things I’ve said in heated moments at home, and about my enduring quest to develop more patience.
My practice has been to ask those to whom I’m closest what I may have done in the past year that hurt them, and then, whether they enumerate some of those things or not, to ask them to forgive me. It’s been a healing ritual and I am grateful for this interlude in the Jewish calendar, which calls for reflection and repentance, as a chance to be more conscious about my behavior.
But this year, somehow, I’m just not feeling it. I don’t feel like being “the good girl,” and asking for forgiveness from some of the people in my life.
I missed Debbie and Danny. They were my childhood friends with whom I used to celebrate the Jewish holidays. I lost touch years ago with Debbie and her brother Danny. So, I was thrilled to recently find them again and reconnect with them … on the pages of a series of children’ books published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations — now the Union for Reform Judaism — in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Back in the days when publishers could get away with giving children’s books simple and straightforward titles like, “Rosh Ha-shono Yom Kippur” or “Passover: The Festival of Freedom,” Debbie and Danny guided youngsters through the basics of holiday observance. Way back when, there was no need for main characters to be anthropomorphized insects and animals or for picture books to be written in clever limericks.
Sitting around the table — four young women, all of us had lost one of our parents — we told the stories that we always tell or never tell: when we knew it was inevitable (cancer was the cause of death in every situation), where we were when we had to drop everything and come home, the worst and the silliest things people have said to us, the mysterious inability to account for the time between death and the funeral.
We waved our hands and talked faster and passed around second and third helpings of squash casserole. Some of us cried. I thought about what it meant to share these things, our moments of vulnerability and terror and grief, and how, in spite of feeling connected, the very unique texture of our losses would always separate us.
Twelve years after my mother’s death, I’m still forgiving her. Trust me when I say there’s enough work to be done that it takes the whole year, every year, and not just the month of Elul or the 26 hours of Yom Kippur. This is what no one tells you about — how big the task is of mourning an entire person.