October 1, 2008
Yom Kippur Dilemma
Is it just me, or does Yom Kippur seem to arrive earlier and more frequently these days?
I feel like I've barely had time to recover from one when the next one's announced, and then I have to toughen up and refrain from saying things like "oh no, not again," in front of my kids, because I want to set a good example for them; be a good Jew at least a few days a year; and make sure they realize how important it is for them to observe the holidays now and later, when they have formed their own families.
The few friends in whom I confide -- I'm sorry I know this is the holiest day of the year I don't want to commit heresy but somehow, it leaves me feeling empty and dissatisfied, like I've been to the water's edge and found I'm unable to drink, taken to the ball and forbidden to dance -- always laugh when I make my confession. They ask if I mind fasting (I do, and I hate the caffeine withdrawal headache, but that's not my problem), if I have bad memories of Yom Kippurs past and if I resent having to give up a workday.
None of the above, I tell them, but then I have a hard time saying more, because I know what they think -- that I have no one to blame but myself for this failure to have a meaningful experience on Yom Kippur, that I can't feel the spirit of this one day because I'm not a good enough Jew the rest of the year.
It's true that I don't go to temple every week, don't keep kosher, drive on Shabbat (am I really saying this in The Jewish Journal? Could this be the last time you hear from me in this publication?).
But I do uphold faithfully and with genuine enthusiasm the values of family and friendship, of kindness to strangers and fairness with all, of honesty and truthfulness. I do try to examine my actions and thoughts all year, to understand where I've failed and how I can do better. And I do feel guilty every day, for the myriad mistakes I know I've made, the countless ways in which I've let the world down. I don't need to go to shul every week to acknowledge my sins; I have a voice in my head reminding me of them all the time, a bad record on auto-play with no "off" switch in sight. What I do need, what I go to temple to look for every Yom Kippur and come back empty-handed, is a voice I can believe in, words that resonate beyond the ordinary, the awareness that I have, at long last, discovered not just what I do wrong but how to do it right.
Maybe I'm expecting too much of a holiday, but it seems to me there's something different about Yom Kippur -- an expectation of a spiritual voyage that is at once self-reflective and outward looking, calming and transformative, that I think one must feel and that evades me every year. When I was younger and lived in Iran, I thought it was the manner in which services were conducted that made the experience meaningless from a spiritual standpoint: our synagogue was in an old building, unadorned on the outside, unostentatious on the inside. The men sat in packed rows on the ground floor facing the bimah, trying hard to one-up each other by praying faster and more loudly than everyone else. The stage was crowded, the aisles were packed with people and, since there was no such thing as an annual membership with specific dues, much of the day's activities focused on raising money for the synagogue.
Upstairs in the balcony, the women sat together in religious exile, excluded from the services by their distance from the bimah and the fact that they didn't read Hebrew and we didn't have prayer books in Farsi. They chased their mischievous kids and paraded their marriage-age daughters and flaunted news of their sons' academic or financial achievements. It was all very nice and convivial, but not exactly fertile ground for spiritual contemplation and, anyway, ours was not the kind of individual, search-for-yourself-you-shall-find kind of spirituality that's in vogue in the West. We were told -- by our rabbis, our parents, our teachers and basically everyone above the age of 12 -- that we must believe, and believe we did, or said we did, because the consequences of defiance were just too great to chance.
In America the first few years, I delighted in the ability to celebrate the holidays proudly and without the need to keep a low profile with the neighbors. I joined a temple, sent my kids to the day school and to bar mitzvah classes. On Yom Kippur, I went to shul eagerly, read the prayers in English and waited for the rabbis to say something of great depth or meaning. Everyone around me was quiet and respectful; the kids were safely tucked away in the temple's day care; the elderly gentlemen who acted as the temple's gatekeepers were characteristically impatient and abrasive. But (this being America where everything is bigger and bolder and more spectacular than elsewhere), our temple had about 1,500 congregants. On the High Holy Days, I sat among a thousand congregants packed into one enormous hall. The room was so big, you couldn't see the bimah or the rabbis (they dressed in white robes that looked suspiciously like wanna-be-priest costumes) except on a couple of huge video screens. The choir broke in every three minutes, and it was all so much spectacle and so little substance that I got tired, and decided to move to a smaller, more quiet temple.
This one had a policy of ranking congregants by the level of membership at which they had joined. To be let into the main sanctuary on Yom Kippur, you had to come in at the highest level, and even then there was no guarantee that you would be assigned a seat anywhere close enough to the bimah to feel you were actually part of the services. If you paid only the basic dues, you were sent to one of the many satellite services, and then all your friends would know how little you had paid (only $5,000) and how much respect you actually deserved and, as long as we're being honest here, you could have donated an elevator and built a classroom, spent countless hours volunteering at the temple's day school, taken a dozen classes with the rabbi -- and you still got sideway glances from the Ashkenazis members of the temple, still felt they saw a scarlet letter "I" every time they looked you in the eyes.
The third synagogue was smaller and less trendy, and maybe for this reason it didn't have enough room for all its members, so services were held in a nearby church. The first year I joined, I took my mother with me. She's an observant Jew, keeps kosher and believes in the importance of faith and tradition. She took one look at the 50-foot wooden cross behind the stage where the rabbi was starting the services and declared she had had enough. Let these Reform Jews pray where they want, she wasn't going to sit and look at a cross all day long on Yom Kippur.
The Iranian temples in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood and the Valley still follow the my-way-or-the-highway tradition of the old country: You do as everyone else (including vote Republican) or you're a degenerate mole serving the interests of Hezbollah.
We have more synagogues and more freedom to use them here in Los Angeles than we did in Iran, but that doesn't mean we're any closer to fulfilling the true purpose of gathering in a house of worship. For me, Yom Kippur in Los Angeles is still very much like Yom Kippur in Iran -- a night when I can sit down to a small dinner with my husband and children, a second night when we gather with our extended families to break the fast, when we say thanks for the blessing of being loved by others and the good fortune of reuniting with those we love. When we are struck by the absence of those who had sat around the same table in earlier years and who are no longer with us, and we remember their favorite foods, their quirky habits, the certainty we all had that we would be together again next year.
And in between the two nights, a search for meaning and faith that somehow still manages to elude me.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is "Caspian Rain" (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.