Now that I live in North Carolina, I find myself explaining a lot. I grew up Jewish in New York, a place where it’s equally likely to hear someone saying oy vey when a subway door closes on them as it is to hear them mutter a four letter word.
But in North Carolina, things are different. About a month after I had moved here last year, the Jewish High Holidays came around. And I had to explain. The concept of Rosh Hashanah is pretty easy: it’s the Jewish New Year, just instead of popping open champagne and attending expensive parties, we dip apples in honey, say some prayers, and make our relatives feel guilty for missing the evening trip to temple. Yom Kippur is a little more difficult: it’s a day of atonement. I explain it kind of like a big, annual, public confession. We go to synagogue, while fasting for twenty-four hours, and apologize for everything bad we’ve done in the past year, whether we knew we were doing it or not. It’s pretty intense. And yet, it’s routine. A thing you do every year the same way you would plant your tomatoes or get your sweaters dry cleaned.
To be honest, I never thought that Yom Kippur was important to me until, at age twenty-seven, I didn’t have one. I had always lived within twenty miles of my parents and spent the Jewish holidays with them. Because it was so easy, it always felt like more of an obligation than something that was meaningful to me. I would say to coworkers who wondered why I was taking the day off from work, “It’s important to my parents, so I do it for them.” So, every year, I would schlep my nicest clothes to Hastings-on-Hudson, I would eat matzoh ball soup and brisket with my extended family, I would go to synagogue and say prayers in a language I can read but not understand. I would take a nap when we got home and fast for as long as I could bear it (usually around four o’clock). I would go to my mother’s friend’s house to break the fast with bagels and lox and orange juice. Then I would go back to my regularly scheduled life.
But last year was different. Instead of standing in Temple Beth Shalom next to my parents trying not to think about food, I spent Yom Kippur sitting on a stool on my porch in North Carolina, singing as much as I could remember of the Avinu Malkeinu, the quintessential Yom Kippur prayer, quiet and little bit teary-eyed. The Avinu Malkeinu is a plaintive prayer, a prayer where, as a group, you ask God for forgiveness, to inscribe you in the Book of Life and to deliver the world from sickness, war and famine. When I was done with my prayer and my cry, I got up, went to school, and taught undergraduates how to write poetry.
Out of Sight
In North Carolina, it was quite possible to forget that the Jewish holidays were even happening. The usual indicators weren’t there. In New York City before the holidays, one sees a lot of people running to catch trains carrying challahs and dress clothes. There are roadblocks set up so the hordes attending synagogue can park near the temple. My mother calls to see when I will be arriving with the cheesecake.
None of these things happened. And so, without the prompts that the holidays were about to arrive, I had no plan. No observance. Nothing. All I had were the few snippets of Hebrew prayers that I remembered. And yet, what becomes clear when you’re by yourself on a holiday, no matter how somber the holiday is, is that holidays are not about the prayers you recite or the food you eat. They are about the people you’re with. And I was alone.
The cliché about how you don’t know what you have until you lose it is quite apt in this case. I had never cared too much about being Jewish, it was something I took for granted. Yom Kippur came and went every year as another responsibility I had to fulfill to my family. And yet, somehow, without the familial obligation, when the day came around, it still felt important. I felt like I had to observe it somehow. And so in lieu of anything else to do, I took the stool out on my porch, the porch was so new that it didn’t even have furniture on it yet. And I sat. I looked at the beautiful North Carolina sky and I sang. The words I sang were words I had said every year since I was old enough to attend synagogue, they were the same words that Jewish people all over the world were saying, and there was something about that that made sense. Even though I couldn’t be with my family physically, I could say the same words that they were saying. I could feel Yom Kippur in the air. And so I sang:
Our Father, Our King, Hear Our Voice
Our Father, Our King, We Have Sinned Against You
Our Father, Our King Be Gracious and Answer Us.
Treat Us Generously and with Kindness and Be Our Help.
While I had moved far away and my new life seemed so different from the life I had always known, something about saying those words brought both worlds together. I could be Jewish in this new place, it might look different and feel different, but it was still being Jewish. The words were the same no matter where or how I said them. And that was almost as good as being at home.