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.