From the entire team here at MyJewishLearning.com, g’mar hatimah tovah!
When the High Holidays roll around, I invariably catch myself falling into a deep chasm of self-loathing. It’s a time to take stock of your life, to think about what you’ve done in the past year, who you’ve wronged—if this makes you feel good about yourself, you must not be trying very hard. Personally, I’ve been pretty rotten, and trying to sort out who I owe an apology to, and what I can try to improve on this year, feels like an enormous task. When we get to Unetaneh Tokef, the prayer with the famous line, “Who by fire and who by water” all I can think is, “I’d rather water, but I guess I don’t get a choice.”
The week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the worst. I earnestly try to figure out how I can be better in the future year, I make promises to myself, and plan, but even while I do it, I’m thinking about those annoying people who show up at the gym on January 1st, hung over but determined to work out five days a week in 2010. Those of us who are long-time members know they’ll make it three weeks, tops, and we’re annoyed that they’re taking up the treadmills with the best view of the TVs. I feel like those fairweather fitness buffs as I make a list of ways I want to change in the new year. There’s just no way that I can live up to what I know I should be doing.
The self-loathing is not limited to my behavior. The New Year also offers a plethora of opportunities for me to hate my body. Two days of Rosh Hashanah mean two days of dressing up in uncomfortable clothes to sit in a room full of people who are almost all significantly more attractive than me. I try to focus on the contents of the mahzor, but it’s almost impossible not to notice all of the pencil skirts and kitty heels and various dresses in size 6 that are gracing every row of the service.
When I was a teenager everyone was always saying that you have to love yourself before anyone else will love you, and as an adult I would just like to call bullshit. I have a boyfriend who is madly in love with me, despite my High Holiday fueled season of self-disgust. But I catch myself feeling smug about having an awesome boyfriend, and then I hate myself for the smugness.
All of this feels like a trap. Descartes said the unexamined life is not worth living, but examining my life sure makes me want to fake my own death and run off to Aruba. Sadly, I’m pretty confident that would not put an end to any of this, and next year Rosh Hashanah services at Beth Israel of Aruba would be even more brutal than this.
Yom Kippur creeps closer, and I am so repulsed by myself I feel like I am coming down with something. I cannot stop thinking about Kol Nidre, when everyone shows up wearing white to symbolize how pure we hope we are in the eyes of God. This also manages to be a combination of two facets of my self-loathing. I never feel ready or pure at Kol Nidre, and I look horrible in white.
I am thinking about this one night (while swilling whiskey, which seems almost mandatory when you’ve reached this level of despair) and I convince myself to try to think of things I’m looking forward to in the future. What I come up with surprises me, not because it’s really a surprise—Sukkot comes right after Yom Kippur every year—but because it hadn’t already occurred to me. Sukkot is my favorite holiday. Sometimes called zeman simchateinu, the time of our happiness, it is indeed a time packed with happy memories for me. I love building the sukkah, watching as a group of computer programmers and lawyers wield hammers. I am not a particularly good artist, but I make a mean paper-chain, a skill which is highly prized on the eve of Sukkot. I am endlessly amused by the strange semi-picnic meals we have in our sukkah, the space somehow both inside and outside at once. The yearly concerns about whether strong winds will collapse the sukkah, and the haphazard devices that have been used (with varying levels of success) to stave off that fate. It all seems like an elaborate game.
In Jewish day school I was taught that even though God seals the Book of Life at the end of Yom Kippur, we all actually have until Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot, to get in our last minute apologies. On that day the person leading services wears white and sings High Holiday tunes, but it doesn’t feel at all solemn. When we parade around the room carrying palm fronds I always have to stifle a giggle. It is impossible for me to not think of light sabers as I watch the four species being waved. Where Yom Kippur demands that we scrutinize every inch of ourselves, Sukkot cannot be fully celebrated if you’re self-conscious.
Knowing that I am always deeply depressed going into Yom Kippur, it’s hard to imagine that Sukkot will be fun or joyous. But it occurs to me—finally, after days of navel-gazing and self-hatred—that this torturous rhythm of the holidays is intentional. We spend a month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and then another week leading to Yom Kippur, all of it consumed with ourselves and the many diverse ways in which we have, inevitably, screwed up and behaved poorly. It is not fun, but the bald-faced honesty is important if we’re ever going to be serious about self-improvement. And then, just when we’ve begun to settle in to this space of absolute self-absorption, we are thrust outside—both literally and figuratively—asked to build something intentionally flimsy. The pseudo-shelter we create is not sufficient for the entire year, but it will shield us from the basics, and requires that we shift our focus from reconstructing ourselves, to constructing something physical. It is such a relief, finally, to go outside, after so many days huddled over a prayer book at synagogue.
A lot of Jews don’t celebrate sukkot. They’re in for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and then they’re busy until it’s time for some matzah. But I want to buttonhole people on the street and beg to just add one night of sukkot to their repertoire. I feel like tracking down Woody Allen and Philip Roth–those paragons of self-hatred, and the kind of guys who I bet never graced the inside of a sukkah–and dragging them into a hut, where I will ply them with sweets and scotch. I bet I can drink them both under the table. A single evening of sukkot is enough to get me out of the self-loathing rut I’ve sunk into.
So maybe I will be miserable for the next few days. I can see the sukkah at the end of the tunnel.
I am a slacker, but a repentant one. The tashlich ceremony, where we ask forgiveness by praying at the water, is supposed to be done on Rosh Hashanah, or right after. I did it this morning, erev Yom Kippur — not a new phenomenon, even for me, as I sort of publicly confessed in a book (gulp). But today I did it on the subway, riding over the Manhattan Bridge on the way to work.
Which gave me even more things to confess. Last night we went to an engagement party for the producer of my movie, and afterward stopped near our old home to shlug kappores — that is, to throw a chicken over your head and transfer your sins to the poor bird. (At least, my wife did. I went looking for the PETA people, but since they’d all bailed, I stood by myself and yelled “YOU MURDEROUS BASTARDS!” at her and all our friends.)
But: back to this morning.
“Yom Kippur is said to be a day k’purim – “a day like Purim.” This linguistic and thematic connection reflects on the tone of both days, Yom Kippur giving a sense of life’s random absurdity and Purim a feeling that even the most outrageous celebrants are in fact approaching the work of reconciliation with God.”
– an article on MyJewishLearning.com
My older daughter ran outside wearing a King Achashverosh mask as I left for work. She is seriously the most spiritual of us all.
In his last posts, Gal Beckerman wrote about barbecuing with hijackers and his other baby. His first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, will be available September 23rd. Gal, a staff writer at the Forward, has been blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series all week.
There is a strange irony in having worked on a history of the Soviet Jewry movement at a moment when Israel often sees those who most cherish the upholding of human rights and international law as its enemies. The recent wars in Lebanon and Gaza happened while I was researching and writing the book, conflicts that were followed by allegations that Israel had committed war crimes, and then by Israel’s defenders fiercely denouncing the NGOs and other international bodies who made those claims.
I say ironic because during the period I examine in the book – the early 1960s to the late 1980s – it was Jews who spoke most often about the respect for human rights. It was the Soviet Jewry movement that made such effective use of the language of international law. It wasn’t so long ago, but attitudes have so clearly shifted, that the years I wrote about now seem like a Twilight Zone inverse of today. Setting aside that there are those who see extreme bias (and even anti-Semitism) behind the claims of Israeli human rights violations, the reality is that Israel appears to be on the opposite side of these universal principles, not the force that is defending them. And that is a real change.
Back in the 1960s, Israel helped clandestinely to foment an international movement to help Soviet Jews, and they specifically focused on what they saw as the trampling of minority rights as the cause’s main argument. Throughout the years of the struggle, there was nothing more effective for both refuseniks (Jews who were refused emigration permits) and their American friends than to point to Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” In one samizdat journal, these words sat comfortably on the masthead next to Psalm 127, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.” Soviet human rights activists like Andrei Sakharov supported the movement passionately and his photo still hangs on Natan Sharansky’s office wall. He looked up to him as a hero.
And most importantly, when the Helsinki process started in 1975 – a series of multilateral meetings that consistently put the Soviets on the defensive about their internal policies – it was the condition of Soviet Jewry that most clearly illustrated the problem. There was almost complete overlap between the goals of those focused on defending universal principles and those who cared about what was also very clearly a Jewish cause.
Gal Beckerman has been blogging for the MJL/JBC Authors Blog. When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone will be available next week.
One of my favorite parts of Yom Kippur (there are oh so many more) is watching kids in synagogue trying to fast for the first time. These kids are either bar mitzvah age and are attempting to fast for the full day or they are 9-10 year olds trying to “practice” for half the day.
What’s so great about watching them is that they act like they’ve never gone three hours without eating. I remember leading a kids service at my synagogue a couple of years back on Yom Kippur. Now, because services are long and they were just kids, we actually provided a snack at around 11:30 in the morning. You would have thought that we were in war torn Bosnia. Those party sandwiches, normally left untouched on a regular Shabbat kiddush table, were gone before I could even be jealous that people were eating.
The truth is that fasting really isn’t that bad. I fasted until 1:15 today! In college, I would go weeks without eating. I could only afford salt and pepper packets. It was rough.
Really, the only tough part about Yom Kippur is the amount of synagogue. Not that shul is a bad thing. I’m just saying, the statement “You can never have too much of a good thing” is totally disproved by Yom Kippur. Please rabbi, let me sit down. And stop with the supplemental English readings. You’re only making things worse.
Then again, I wouldn’t call fasting easy either. 25 hours is a long to go without leather shoes (and food and water). So I assume if I offered you a video that provided tips to make your fast easier, you would watch it eagerly.
Well you are in luck. Because here’s a video that does exactly that.
Just spent way more time than I realized on the phone with some folks at National Geographic, who are planning a documentary on the baal teshuva lifestyle — that is, people who weren’t born Orthodox who somehow or another wind up that way.
“Yeah,” I said with a nervous giggle that I wasn’t sure where it came from, “I’m a baal teshuva.” And right away, it felt like I was admitting something, like I’d come out of the closet with a deviancy that was way too obscure for anybody in the room to know what I was talking about, but which was nonetheless embarrassing the hell out of me to say aloud.
And I wasn’t even 100% sure why. Admitting that you didn’t grow up Orthodox should be as easy as admitting you didn’t grow up Buddhist (for a white person, anyway) — it’s not like anyone expects a fresh-faced kid who can’t pronounce Hebrew right and just barely knows how to keep a kosher kitchen to be undetectably Orthodox.
But when you’re first starting to be a religious Jew, the last thing you want is to stick out. You want to blend in. You’re half research-study subject and half undercover anthropologist, experimenting in a life that you may or may not choose to immerse yourself in.
So I told her my story. I told her how I became Orthodox on my own, outside of a community (in San Francisco, with a bunch of middle-aged gay men teaching me to be Orthodox and a bunch of female-to-male transsexuals teaching me how to act like a guy). I told her about wanting to do Orthodoxy my own way, and then marrying into a family who’d been Hasidim ever since Hasidism started. I told her about how you start thinking in two different languages, one in your job and with your old friends and another with your new friends and the new places you hang out with, how you spend all your time inside a synagogue with random men who you’d never hang out with on your own, and how even your wife doesn’t totally understand the life you used to lead.
I realized about two minutes in that I was basically just narrating my memoir (the seasonally-apt Yom Kippur a Go-Go — read it now! Let it inspire your thoughts of repentance! Or just get a kick out of me explaining Shabbos to my stripper girlfriend!). But I kept talking anyway.
And then, about half an hour later, the National Geographic person (who was being very kind and patient with me) told me that, uh, they were looking for recent baalei teshuva. That is, people who were just starting to become religious, and had just moved into religious neighborhoods.
“But I’ll tell my producer about you,” she promised.
And then she asked if I could find a baal teshuva (or a few) who might be interested in being profiled.
I reiterated her biggest problem — that recent baalei teshuva don’t want to be stigmatized as baalei teshuva. Not to mention the whole film-crew-following-you-around-as-you-try-to-learn-about-your-new-life thing. But hey, if they cast Jersey Shore, that shouldn’t be a problem. Also, for most people I know, Orthodoxy isn’t really a gradual process — people wade in the pool a little, and the next thing you know, they’re either living in Bnei Brak with a pile of Shabbos stones or they’re straight back to being hippies or investment bankers or reggae singers or whatever they were doing before they started being frum.
So there you have it. Are you a recent baal teshuva? Do you know anyone who is? Give me a shout, and I’ll hook you guys up.
On Monday, Gal Beckerman wrote about barbecuing and hijackers. first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, will be available September 23rd. Gal, a staff writer at the Forward, will be blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series all week.
I’ve repeated it so many times these past few months that I don’t even think about it anymore. “I had two babies this year,” I’ll say, smiling widely. Or sometimes I’ll hold up the book and say, “Here’s my other baby.” I try to avoid the line if my wife is anywhere nearby.
It’s both a cliché and a kind of reflex at this point – both reasons to drop the whole baby thing altogether. It also feels like something a woman who’s gone through labor might not utter so glibly. And yet, I can’t give it up. It’s hard to untangle my feelings about how the book and my baby started life – my editor actually called me while I was at the hospital because I was late to deliver (!) the manuscript. It’s always felt more than just a thoughtless metaphor for me.
But now that my daughter is almost turning one and my book has made its way onto the shelves of bookstores, maybe it’s time to test if the comparison actually stands up.
Gestation period: Hands down, the book wins if we’re talking about time. I started working on it over five years ago, before I even met the mother of my little girl. It involved hours upon hours of research in archives and oral interviews. And beyond the work, there was the anxiety. There was plenty of that to go around while my wife’s belly grew, but it was concentrated in a distinct – and relatively short – period of time. Anxiety for the book took different forms at different times over the years, and it was always waiting for me around the corner, even at my most confident moments.
Seeing her/it for the first time: Since I had no idea what she would look like and had not slept all night and my wife had gone through an intense labor that involved her yelling at me about getting rid of various things in the room whose smells she couldn’t stand, I would say that the first sight of the book was a more controlled and predictable thing. My editor and I had been discussing the cover for months, then I saw the galley, and by the time the actual book came in the mail, it was thrilling (of course), but not the earth shattering event I had always fantasized about. It was already familiar to me. And as time passes it becomes even more familiar as an object, while my daughter’s face becomes more a thing of crazy wonder to me every day (it’s a little like this writer’s response to the book vs. baby question).
Fourth trimester: This is long over for my daughter, but I’m at the tail end of it with the book. It’s the three-month period after a baby is born when they are more blob than human. It’s before you really know what her personality will be, before she can interact in any way besides screaming uncontrollably. It made me a bit impatient. The analogous time for the book is once everything is done and before it is actually published, reviewed, received by the world. You are waiting and hoping and worried that your book might be ignored, that it will fall in the vast cultural forest without making a sound. All I can hope for now is that the end of that period for the book is as rewarding as it was when my daughter’s personality began to manifest itself.
These days she’s a mischief-maker and a collector of every speck of dust and stray Cheerio hidden in the corners of our small one-bedroom apartment, exclaiming “wow!” with gusto whenever she discovers something. If only reading my reviews fills me with as much joy as hearing those “wows”!
On the face of things, when your rabbi tells you that you that he can make your Yom Kippur fast seem shorter, you’d probably be supportive of the idea. But in Israel, like most things there, making Yom Kippur a little easier for some people has been met with lots of dissent from others.
Israel, unlike North America, has already switched back from daylight savings time. This actually isn’t something new. For years, the law has been to turn back to standard time the Sunday before Yom Kippur. It was done out of a view from religious members of the K’nesset that if the fast ended an hour earlier, it would encourage more people to fast on the most holy day of the Jewish calendar.
But now, some people are trying to change this. The Meretz Party has recently introduced a bill (which, if passed, would take into effect next year) would delay the time change to a later point in the year.
More than that, a Facebook group fighting for the cause has over 200,000 members.
But is their argument anything more than just anti-religious sentiment? Actually, yes.
While admitting that people like to enjoy their summer evenings and that it isn’t fair that it has to get dark so early, they do point to the amount of energy that is wasted by the fact that lights need to be turned on at night. Also, they point to the statistics of car related accidents that occur in Israel as a result of driving at night.
It should also be pointed out that we here in North America do just fine with this “extra” hour of Yom Kippur. If anything, I propose getting rid of Neilah. Who decided it would be a good idea to stand for the last hour of a fast?
Did you know that when the British were in charge of Palestine it was illegal to blow a shofar or bring a Torah scroll to the Western Wall? If you did it, you would be arrested. But every year, some brave young kids would sneak shofars to the Western Wall, and blow them at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, risking their freedom in the process.
Check out this video about the illegal shofar blowing in the years before Israel became a state, and watch the group of teenagers–now old men–return to the Kotel together, and blow the shofar again. It’s long, but it actually gave me goosebumps. Worth watching.