015: Yom Kippur & Schrödinger’s Jew: Practicing but not quite there yet
I survived my first YK and all I got was this spirituality, connection, wonder, yearning, belonging, insights, new friends, and a dash of dizziness
Things that happened:
That’s the amount of time the traditional Yom Kippur fast lasts, and I recall wondering why? And how is that measured? When does that actually start and end? Well, from the time I had my last protein bar walking from the car to the church* and the following evening got to friends’ house to break fast, it was 25 on the nose.
*Yes, at a church. A beautiful Universal Unitarian in Koreatown near my last apartment. LA has such fine architecture and hidden gems!
Rosh Hashanah was the first I truly started to recognize some of the music, language, and patterns in a Reform service. Yom Kippur threw a wrench in that; if it’s the holiday of atonement (is it still all about sin for progressive American Jews?), it’s somber compared to a typical Shabbat. And YK is considered Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. It’s the most widely-attended service of the year and it closes out the high holy days (which… are immediately followed by 3 more holidays).
Atonement draws a picture I don’t identify with. Some think of Yom Kippur as more a time of change, of concessions, of doing right, making things right (Teshuvah) and making a real commitment to not harm others or ourselves. That can look like atonement before God (traditionally) or for me, a Jew-in-training, it looks like accountability, amends, and resolutions.
Among other mitzvahs is a prime one: helping those in need. I had a rental car for these two days of Yom Kippur to get around while fasting and seeing folks. I pulled into the wrong K-town alley and found a cheap lot behind a strip mall restaurant. I made my way to the saddest liquor store I’ve ever seen just to use an ATM; I mean, most of the shelves were empty. It screamed drug front? I got extra cash to give the homeless man in the alley I’d passed, $10 or $20, I can’t really recall. He was in all gray, bobbing around up against a brick wall, and man, my many woes seemed really small. I don’t remember the last time I gave money to a human being without a home or actually made intentional eye contact.
Then there’s Hebrew.
So, after quite a few services at this point with a transliterated Siddur (I think that’s the name of a band I saw once at ACL Fest), I gotta say, I don’t know as much as I’d like. Of course it’s early and at this stage it’s all about reading sounds and not learning actual vocabulary as much.
The Hebrew you speak at temple is ancient and ritualistic. It’s not conversational, of course. I’m constantly glancing back and forth between the transliteration column and the Hebrew script, checking to make sure I can recognize all the letters. We haven’t gotten to all the letters in class, I read ahead.
But lately I’m just looking at the transliteration. Probably a disservice, but I’m just trying to keep up with the Rabbi or the Cantor. Services are the time to speak and sing Hebrew, not really learn it.
And then there’s the translation. So, here’s my biggest disconnect. If I look at the English at just the right spot I’m often taken aback. Remember when I said it’s ancient and ritualistic?
Coming from a Christian background, any talk of g-d to my ears still catches me on the defensive and there are bits of common prayers that could read in English like you’re talking to the master of the universe. Which is actually fine, but it’s not something I’d ever say in English without thinking I stumbled into Scientology or a He-Man convention.
In our course reading I identified with the concept of group prayer as a larger act, not really about individual words or prayers per se. There’s power and an experience of being with other people in what can feel like an altered space emotionally; it becomes a meditation. Here the Hebrew is a huge service: it’s a part of the ritual and history and allows me to feel the music, the shapes of the sounds, the people around me. That’s not something you really get to experience outside of Catholic mass in Latin.
There are many more instances of this I’ll touch upon but right now it just feels nice to learn, acknowledge when something doesn’t totally grab me or seems downright strange, and to know that I’m lucky to be here and be a part of it. It’s about the larger experience, not just worship, and I’m loving that.
Returning to Judaism
“Practicing Jew” isn’t something I hear a lot in conversation. It’s a little judgmental to me and a little dated. Observant may be a better term, but it still can carry an implication that some Jews aren’t observant enough.
It occurred to me during the days between RH and YK — Aseret Yemei Teshuvah or Days of Awe — that I’m both not Jewish yet and practicing Jewish, which is a weird, rare space to be in. Relatively very few people experience this. I’m Schrödinger’s Jew. Having learned about some Jewish thought on conversion — that choosing Judaism may mean you were always Jewish in some sense, either in your forgotten family history or in a past life (forced conversion, genocide) — I have to wonder what that means. When you enter the mikvah you’re legally Jewish. Is it like I was always Jewish? Is that like retroactive, conceptually or spiritually?
I feel that way, so maybe that’s enough.
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