September 16, 2004
Embrace the Day, Invite the ‘Stranger’
My earliest High Holiday memory goes back to about age 7. It was the night before Yom Kippur and my parents had gone off to the synagogue, leaving my 10-year-old brother and me with a babysitter. I forgot that I wasn't supposed to eat anything that night, went into the kitchen, got on a chair to get a banana from the top of the refrigerator, peeled it halfway down and put it into my mouth.
My brother shouted, "You can't do that!"
Then I remembered, wrapped the banana back in its peel and put it back on top of the refrigerator. I don't know what my mother thought when she discovered that banana, she never said anything about it. But I think that from then on I felt that Yom Kippur was something very important.
When I was 12 I won an essay contest at my Conservative synagogue by writing that my favorite Jewish holiday was ... Yom Kippur. Although my choice was one calculated to win, I had in fact begun to enjoy the High Holidays. Something about the period of self-evaluation and striving to return to right behavior (my understanding of teshuvah), appealed deeply to me. So did self-affliction -- I wanted to fast before my mother would let me (she made me wait until I was 13).
My strong positive feelings about the High Holidays have continued unabated throughout the 30 years of my interfaith marriage. When Wendy and I were dating, she was always willing to attend services with me. For a number of years we went to the Harvard Hillel services. In those days the services were held in Harvard University's Sanders Theatre, a not very comfortable or synagogue-like setting, but we were attracted by Rabbi Gold, an Orthodox rabbi whom we had consulted before our wedding. He had treated Wendy kindly and respectfully when he advised her not to convert before we were married unless it was something that she wanted for herself.
After we bought a house in the suburbs, we joined our neighborhood Reform synagogue when our daughter was ready for religious school. At some point when our children were very young, we developed our own High Holiday custom. Traditional Jews observe tashlich on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah -- they go to a body of moving water and throw bread or stones into it, as a symbolic casting away of sins. I had never performed that ritual before, but somehow we got started going to a neighborhood park on Yom Kippur afternoon and throwing bread into the Charles River -- though most of the bread was intercepted by hungry ducks before it even hit the water. We have clung to that custom "religiously" and every Yom Kippur afternoon, dressed in our finest suits and dresses (which must look very curious to the families playing in the park), we feed the ducks/cast away our sins. My children, who are now 21 and 26, still insist that, as the person with most of the sins, I should throw in most of the bread.
For Wendy and me, Judaism is very much a matter of religion. We have experienced so many High Holidays at this point that the rituals and customs of the holidays are familiar and comfortable to us as a couple. On Yom Kippur, the Kol Nidre melody reminds us of all of those past years. We both fast and return to the synagogue for the afternoon Yizkor memorial and concluding services. We enjoy the opportunity for an extended quiet time of reflection. Each year I hate to see the day's"'time-out" from daily routines come to an end.
I think that our attitudes toward the High Holidays have rubbed off on our children. Several years ago, our daughter, Emily, spent a fall semester in New Zealand. She had to make a major effort to be in a synagogue for Yom Kippur -- take a bus from the conservation project she was working on into Auckland, check into a youth hostel, have pizza for dinner alone and then make her way to the Progressive synagogue to attend services. In a wonderful example of Jews taking care of other Jews, she was befriended by a couple who invited her to their home to break the fast and to stay the night; it turned out that one of the couple's children had been married by the rabbi of our own synagogue! When our son, Adam, was in Munich last fall, he, too, made his way to the Progressive synagogue, and was taken in by a young family.
The Torah and haftorah portions on Yom Kippur morning year after year are, for me, the most inspiring expressions of Jewish values -- from the Torah portion's command to "choose life" to the haftorah portion's command "to unlock the shackles of injustice ... to share your bread with the hungry."
And these readings have an interfaith theme -- in Deuteronomy 29:9-14, 30:11-20, Moses says that those who are about to enter into God's covenant and be established as a people include everyone in the community, even the "strangers in your camp." I experience the themes of the liturgy of the day -- which emphasize the Day of Judgment, self-evaluation and repentance, seeking forgiveness, ethical behavior and taking advantage of a new beginning -- as applying fully to Wendy. When the congregation prays communally for repentance, I experience her as a member of the congregation and community.
For me, the High Holidays, and Yom Kippur in particular, are a great gift -- a gift that interfaith families can benefit from and fully enjoy.
Edmund C. Case is the president and publisher of InterfaithFamily.com and the co-editor, with Ronnie Friedland, of "The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook" (Jewish Lights).