I f**king hate Yom Kippur.
I regret those words as soon as I think them. But it’s true.
The endless prayer services, the long periods of standing, the 25 hours without food or water. Solitary confinement in prison is a better way to spend a day, because at least then you don’t have to put up with the guy behind you talking about baseball playoffs while the person in front of you sobbing his eyes red while a booming voice from the front of the room sings a song you can’t quite follow in a language you don’t understand.
Somehow, being around these people, it is the loneliest, most abandoning slog. It is the day when your family, your friends, your community and your entire religion basically tells you “sorry, you’re on your own today… good luck and here’s hoping you don’t end up dead.”
I’ve noticed that Yom Kippur is the one day most Jews go to synagogue despite their level of observance, and I have no idea why. Rabbis have noted that logically people should gravitate to Purim or Simchat Torah or some other holiday that mostly involves being yourself and just cutting loose. But Jews are insane and guilt-ridden and set a standard where you gotta be in a room with hundreds of other Jews pleading for your life to a G-d you couldn’t care less about the rest of the year.
It’s like visiting your elderly aunt in the nursing facility to celebrate her 94th birthday even though she has Alzheimer’s and will never acknowledge you were there or that there was a birthday to celebrate. You do it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s very catholic. You can do anything and get away with it if you go to confession occasionally. Not visiting your aunt otherwise is okay as long as you do it once a year and why not do it on an anniversary that used to mean something?
On the other hand, that’s the stupidest thing for a Jew to believe, because our religion is predicated on the idea that G-d is ever present, so confessions are not nearly as important as actions that prove you are capable of the high road. Maybe for some Jews that high road is boring themselves for as many hours as they can stand it before giving in to the reality that polar behavior is unhealthy. You really should visit your aunt more often, but it makes you feel bad about yourself to face mortality so often. And you feel bad if too much time passes, because death is still present and who knows how many birthdays anyone has left?
Here’s the thing about avoidance — it works. Religion, for all the belief I have in it, really is all mental when it comes down to it. I’ve seen people leave ultra-orthodox communities and the first step is always a mental displacement, followed by the eventual realization that our externalizations are not our true selves, something you would imagine religious people would have a greater grasp on. This inevitably leads to shaving a beard/women wearing pants/getting divorced/mixed dancing. But the mental transition is when the change really took place.
For me, it was a long road to the mental transition into solid Judaism, and even then Yom Kippur was still the thorn in my side.
When I was a kid, maybe 6 or 8 or 9 years old, we would walk 2 miles with my mom to go to her Orthodox synagogue. And on Yom Kippur, because the plan was to spend all day there, she would let me bring a bag of toys with me. So right off the bat my earliest memories of Yom Kippur were hanging out in the Sunday School building and playing with 20 of my favorite G.I. Joes. The added annoyance of carrying a gym bag for 2 miles was offset by the fun I would have with a whole day of making up adventures for the intrepid heroes. I would take a break to eat a peanut butter sandwich supplied by the babysitters, but that was pretty much it. Me and the Joes, until late in the afternoon my older brother would walk me home. And that was it. That was Yom Kippur.
And I hate change, so I expected it to be that way forever. No one bothered to teach me why people were really there. If I had some inkling of understanding, it was that this was like Shabbat but longer and more tiring. Which, in a way, Yom Kippur is exactly that. So I wasn’t all wrong.
The shock came when I was almost bar mitzvah age, and my mom expected me to actually attend the service. My brother is 5 years older so at the same time I needed a male role model in the synagogue, he was moving out of the house to go to college. So I remember being 12 and my mom reserved me a seat in the sanctuary and they put me in the front row. No transition, just one year I am outside the service and the next I am expected to look like a leader. My Hebrew was limited to what I had learned in school, and so I could speak conversationally to ask someone to close a door but the words in a prayer service were practically a different language. Friends of my parents would smile at me, and shake my hand, as if welcoming me to a club. But like Groucho Marx, I had no intention of being a member. I have no idea how long I lasted that year, but eventually my mom let me go home to nap, or play with my toys, or read comic books- the things that truly mattered in life.
And so it continued, and those first few years I would attempt to make it through the services to no avail. I didn’t realize there was a Neilah service that caps the whole thing. I didn’t know what anyone was saying except for the stuff like Ashrei that I had learned to say in prayers at school every morning. Yom Kippur was supposed to be a big day of atonement and although I had lots to atone for, I just didn’t see what the big deal was.
When I was 14 I took a plunge, and tried to make an effort to find out more about Judaism. I was entering high school, and was given a choice of where to go. I could follow my brother and sister into the local Jewish high school, which had a bad reputation and all the same people I had spent the last three years with, I could go to public school and essentially forego an advanced Jewish education, or I could leave everything and everybody behind and go to a boys only “black hat” Yeshiva in Chicago. I lived in a dorm and thought that structure would be good for me. But school years and Jewish new years line up pretty well, so the first major problem I ran into was Yom Kippur, coming back around again.
Here was an opportunity. I could try my best to make it through a full Yom Kippur service for the first time. Take a plunge. Live up to people’s expectations and go outside my own limitations.
But here’s what really happened.
This year, I asserted my independence and decided for myself that the best course of action was to sleep it all away. Yom Kippur comes but once a year and if I could just avoid it at all costs, then this problem would simply disappear.
I made it through multiple rounds of dorm counselor shakes, Rabbis yelling and physical manhandling. I stayed in my bed and held my ground. They left me alone, for fear of missing too much of the service. But attendance was mandatory every day at prayers, and Yom Kippur was no exception.
The rabbi in charge of the dorms came to find me. I was the only person missing, and that was a big problem. When he found me in bed, he yelled at me.
I pretended to sleep.
He whipped the covers off of me.
I pretended to sleep.
He grabbed me, and pulled me to the floor.
I pretended to sleep.
What I didn’t know is that he had emergency medical training, and thought that something must have been very wrong with me. So he took his knuckles and rubbed them hard against my sternum. I flipped out and he wrestled me. I was in big trouble.
I’ve spent a few Yom Kippurs in bed since then. As I grew into a proper adult, I tried to balance the guilt of how I’ve been told I have to experience the holiday with the need to strike my own path.
A few years after I got married, I made it through the entire service for the first time. But I still felt something lacking. As much as I can try to follow the flock and pretend to be angelic, which as I understand it is the point of all the rules of the day, it will always ring hollow.
Maybe I’ve been spoiled by my influences.
When I was growing up, my mother had determined that we would be raised Orthodox. But while we pursued that, my father, who grew up with Reform Judaism, would go with his parents on Yom Kippur eve to their Temple. I knew that using instruments on the holiday was verboten, but he would return refreshed from the inspiration of a string quartet performing Kol Nidre while I had sat through a bunch of old Russian men singing without coordination.
The contrast was dire, and I was shaken by the commitment my religiously disengaged father had to this service. As a musician, he replicated the performance on his home synthesizer.
I pray that one day I will feel as moved by Yom Kippur itself as my father was at the wordless musicality he was privy to experience.
The other thing my father would do instead of going to Synagogue was to take time for himself and go for a walk in a park. I assume some personal conversations would go on, just inside the ether and the wind. At the end of it both sides would feel they had a better understanding of one another.
How glorious that sounds to me.
I would rather spend the day sleeping. I would rather spend the day walking. I would rather spend the day listening to and playing music, and all the taboo things that Orthodox Judaism tell me I have to ignore to worship properly.
I don’t know what I will do this year. Will I force myself to sit through service after service without meaning?
Original photo by Mark Neyman. Altered by the author.