Jewish Journal


A Memoir of Yom Kippurs Past

by Amy Klein

Posted on Sep. 12, 2002 at 8:00 pm

By the time you read this, it's probably too late for me.

To repent, I mean.

You might be reading this on the day before Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement itself, and by then -- despite all the rabbinic lore of last-minute deathbed confessions and Indiana Jones-style slide-under-the-fast-closing-door of Heaven's pearly gates -- I think that if you haven't been thinking about your wrongs until the final hour, "Ne'ila" -- the last prayer of Yom Kippur day, which literally means closing -- then you don't have a prayer to be saved.

How many shall leave this world
and how many shall be born into it?
Who shall live and who shall die?
Who shall live out the limit of his
days and who shall not?
Who shall perish by fire/water/
earthquake/plague/strangling/stoning ... etc.

If my attitude toward these holy days seems glib, it's because I took these Yom Kippur prayers very seriously from a young age, and this is my only way to deflect that foreboding feeling that grips my chest like a shrunken glove, sometime mid-August, at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, a month before Rosh Hashana.

Some people look forward to the High Holidays, with its delectable apples and honey, the family ingathering and even, they say, their time in synagogue, which they say is "cleansing." Imagine that.

I, on the other hand, raised on the fire-and-brimstone imagery of angry angels, an unforgiving God and a never-ending checklist of sins listed in the Machzor prayer book, never overjoyed at the prospect of these holidays.

How could I?

There were too many things I did wrong over the year for me to enjoy the holiday -- although what an 11-year-old religious girl could do wrong, in retrospect, seems laughable compared to 20 years later.

Greater men than I have thought about the concept of sin. Rabbis, theologians, philosophers, professors have dedicated tomes to it. But this is a subject that I have been schooled in all my life -- one way or another, Orthodoxy, and the departure from it, is always about sin -- and I have become an amateurish expert myself, a dilettante of sorts.

My first "sin": My first official fast, age 12. It is drizzling, a cool September Brooklyn rain that cools and clears the sizzling summer streets, and portends the torrid winter to come. The night mist spritzes my father and me on our way home from shul. I am wearing my yellow plastic slicker, run-walking, trying not to slip, to keep up with my father's lengthy paces. I put my right sleeve in my mouth, while my left holds my father's yanking hand. The rubber is wet. I am thirsty, and it tastes good. I let some more rain gather on the edge of the sleeve, and then suck it off, delicately. My father doesn't notice. I am drinking. On Yom Kippur. A sin.

Oh, there were many sins for which to repent.

"For the sin we have sinned before You
under duress and willingly,
and for the sin we have sinned before You
through hardness of the heart.
For the sin we have sinned before You
without knowledge,
and for the sin we have sinned before You
with utterance of the lips...."

A sin for every occasion. The Artscroll Machzor lists one for each letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, which we recite about 10 times throughout Yom Kippur, pounding our hearts in repentance.

There we are, crowded in one row: My mother, her mother and me, sandwiched between my older and younger sister. On rickety metal chairs with sticky red vinyl cushions, in the basement "break-away minyan," the five of us stand, sit, stand, sit, each time the ark is opened and closed.

We take our right hands in a fist, and pound our hearts for every sin. My elder sister, nearly as pious as God, sways and pounds fervently, like a metronome, carefully iterating every word, loudly. Too loud.

"You're supposed to whisper," I tell her.

Another sin. Talking during davening.

My grandmother doesn't say the words at all. I watch her lips and they aren't moving.

"You're supposed to talk them," I tell her. Me, the little rebbetzin.

"I'm reading them to myself," she says. I am disappointed. Also, look at how she pounds her heart -- with an open hand, tepidly, as if caressing herself. What kind of repentance is that?

And forget my mother. She pounds her heart perfectly in time. Her hand is just the right shape, but it is her heart that isn't in it. I see it, but I say nothing. Because you can't tell someone who doesn't care about sinning to repent. It's like arguing with a color-blind person about fall fashion. It's just not applicable.

But as much as I am watching those around me, it is my own young soul for which I am mildly terrified. I think that this anxiety over the holidays originated in my schooling, the prayers themselves, and, if I want to be psychoanalytic about most of my religious hang-ups -- from my father.

We learned that on Yom Kippur you ask God for forgiveness for all your sins, but prior to synagogue, during the 10 Days of Repentance, you are supposed to deal with your fellow Jews. The sins you did onto them -- the ones they know about and the ones they didn't know about (which were most of them, presenting another question: Did you have to actually tell them about the times you made fun of them, making them feel bad in order to exonerate yourself?). Otherwise you had no business asking God for forgiveness. If you sincerely asked a person three separate times for forgiveness (saying in one breath, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," doesn't count) and they refused to forgive you, the sin was upon them, according to Jewish law.

As a child, I lay in dread of asking my father for forgiveness -- like asking for an expensive after-school trip, it seems fraught with doom and rejection; and as I grew older, even as I gave up this parent/child exchange, I use the High Holidays to reconcile with other people I might have wronged. It's the one custom that remains, though few others do.

Yom Kippurs pass, awesome in their familiarity, and standing between my mother and older sister, my piety vacillates: I'm repentant, at times, and questioning at others.

"For the sin that we have sinned before You
through denial and false promises...."

This is the one I have the most trouble with. My false promises.

Yes, I know. In the three steps of repentance -- acknowledgment of the sin, regret for the sin and a promise not to do the sin again -- I am clear on the first two. But year after year, I find myself in shul, making the same promises, having the same regrets, seeing the same failures -- with new ones added to boot.

And I grow weary. Wary. How could I be here every year saying the same things, knowing I wouldn't manage to keep my word? How meaningless is that? It's like a Hollywood marriage -- they say the vows, but everyone knows that it will never last.

"For the sin that we have sinned before You
in public or in private,
and for the sin we have sinned before You
with immorality."

Years after I leave Brooklyn, I am beyond my girlish desires of hoping not to sin again. On Yom Kippur I stand there, knowing I will sin. I know I will violate the Sabbath, conduct "lewd" acts, eat in a non-kosher restaurant and countless other wrongs. But, I think, who says these are really sins? (Sin: Haughtiness.)

In my 20s I reached a point where I didn't even consider these things sins. In Judaism, it seems, the more observant you are, the more you have to worry about. The most pious rabbi, the one who never said an unkind word to a soul and spent all his time studying Torah, sits crying for days before Yom Kippur. On the other hand, my Sunday school friend eats cheeseburgers on the beach on Rosh Hashana, and thinks, "Hey, I'm a pretty good person. I am nice to my mother, I pay my taxes. What do I have to worry about?"

Which person would you rather be?

So, as an adult, with no one to force me to go to services, I take a break from the holiday, the angry angels, with their copious note-taking on my deeds, tallying them up like Santa's elves, with the prize being life. The break occurs inadvertently. My non-religious boyfriend won't come to synagogue with me. "It's boring," he says. I had never considered this obvious possibility, synagogue being boring. Especially if you take your prayers seriously; and you have to, don't you? Or not.

I start to "cut" services on the High Holidays. I don't go to the beach or do anything quite so rebellious, I just sleep in or go for a walk in the park. (Sin: "We have strayed.")

But still the High Holiday angst does not disappear; it comes regularly, mid-August, like a seasonal occurrence, among the turning leaves and shorter days. I ride it out like a panic attack or a tornado, waiting for the storm to descend, descend, envelop, then disappear by the time Sukkot rolls around.

A few years back I am invited to a Traditional synagogue. Since I no longer identify as "religious," I think that there is no harm in going there, despite my strict training against other streams of Judaism, which, in truth, have always seemed as foreign to me as another religion.

I arrive just in time for the Musaf service. And it seems as if I have never left. They are reading the same verse as years prior. My heart starts to pound, and I ready my hand for the sin lists. But they don't beat themselves, as they read aloud: "We abuse, we betray, we are cruel."

Hey, those don't seem so bad, I think. "We destroy, we embitter, we falsify," OK, I can handle this, I say to myself. "We gossip, we hate, we insult...." I don't recall the prayers being this easy. They aren't as negative as I remember. Or is it my childhood Bogeyman that frightened me so?

As I read through this list of sins, I feel a sense of possibility. Hey, I can do this, I think. I can be this person. I may have a shot at being a good Jew.

No, this is not solely about denominations -- sure, this is a different Machzor I read, a different translation, with only half the sins, interpreted in a way that I can apply to my life without feeling like an utter and complete failure. But it's more than that. Reading the holiday from a different perspective -- instead of the same words I had read since childhood, with the voice of my father/teachers/rabbis embedded within -- introduces to me a concept so integral to Yom Kippur, but one that I had forgotten: Forgiveness.

All my life, I worried so about my sins, my wrongdoings, my faults, my failures, that the only image I had was of a vengeful, exacting God towering above us mercilessly.

"For all these sins, forgiving God,
forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement."

These words are there in every Machzor, but this time, I am old enough -- distanced enough? -- to hear it. If God is so great and awesome, won't he be more apt to overlook, excuse, and yes, forgive me for the sins I have committed? Could there be another God than the one that I grew up with?

It's been two decades since my first "real" Yom Kippur, and I still don't have the answer to that. Or to any of my other questions on sin and repentance, observance and disobedience.

Nonetheless, I have recently returned to services, sporadically. This year, at the Tashlich services, when we gathered at the ocean to throw bread in the water to symbolize the casting away of our sins, a school of dolphins swims up, nearly to meet us. The dolphins jump and dive as we lob out day-old raisin challah, and while I'm not sure that they eat our bread, as I stand there, knee-deep in the salty high tide, I think it is a sign. Maybe my sins -- whatever they are, however and whoever is counting -- will be forgiven. Maybe.

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