On Yom Kippur And Loving The Jews You’re With

How hard it is to love the Jews you’re with.

Ahavat Yisrael (love of one’s fellow Jews) is much easier in theory than in practice. It’s not unlike the way your friends’ parents are always less annoying- or, if annoying, at least it’s in the endearing and tolerable way- than your own. This is not a gripe about a “bad community,” or any particular complaint about mine. In fact, I am, if anything, conscious of my senior-year sentimentality overflowing into my thoughts here. This is about gratitude, and about the fraught and fertile familial feeling of Community, and the kind of emotional work that isn’t smooth or sexy. 

For the past three years, I’ve spent Yom Kippur at the most beautiful shul; the chazzan’s voice is a caramel-smooth, powerful, sensitive cry that seems reassuringly connected to heaven. The physical setup of the sanctuary is the most egalitarian I’ve seen in an Orthodox context, and women have active roles in the service. Kol Nidre is always followed by a moving Carlebach story, fitting perfectly the tranquility of the night, when the generous meals we consumed before the fast have mostly digested, and the angst of preparing for Yom Kippur’s daunting character has passed. This is what we’ve built ourselves up for, and it’s here, and somehow these twenty-five hours are less scary than the anticipation for them.

This community welcomed me, empowered me with loving harmonies, energized me with the vibrations of the floor as the whole room bounced while singing “Mar’eh Kohen”. The older woman in the row behind me shared generously her citron adorned with fragrant cloves, passed through the women’s section to revive us from hungry lightheadedness. It was too cold and also sometimes sweaty, and we exchanged layers of sweaters, shawls, and scarves. My friend’s grandmother gave me a hug after I recited yizkor, wordlessly doing the Right Thing. I felt stirred by the warmth of these people, their voices rising, their arms wrapped around their close ones. This was my Yom Kippur Community, sure. But I did not know their Shabbat lives, their joys, their pains. And moreover, I did not know their annoying quirks, nor had I asked them for notes for a class we shared. We had no shared experiences beyond Yom Kippur itself. And nothing is particularly wrong with that. But in prayer, I believe there is an unmatchable value in throwing your fateful lots in along with those with whom you spend your time, about whom you have opinions -not all kind- and from whom you could stand to learn a thing or two.

How hard it is to love the Jews you’re with. Which is why I think it’s important to make every effort to pray with your community, with people you’ll see tomorrow- after you’ve had your Hillel-sponsored bagels and orange juice, and you’ve changed your Keds back to leather Sperry’s- when you’ll all be different maybe, although perhaps how different is up to you. That way when you pray, you’re praying with grit, praying from within bounds of tension. That way, you remember how hard it is to avoid petty judgments, how conscious you must be of the vibes you transmit. It makes it harder, this way, to be self-congratulatory, as can be the case with that blushing affection I have felt toward near-strangers in synagogues that are lovely but not truly mine, simply by virtue of where I’ve spent my time. I am not as good as I think I am. Or rather, I am good, and still, my rough patches are tender and scary when exposed. My ugly thoughts creep out of their hiding places and I take to heart the liturgical declaration that

“אנו מתירין להתפלל עם העבריינים”. 

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“We are permitted to pray amongst sinners.”  

Next Yom Kippur, when you’re zoning out during the recitation of sacrificial temple procedures, imagine sending a virtual message to everyone in your row, or within your line of vision; perhaps something akin to my Bubbie’s blessing to me- “I wish for you all the things you wish for yourself”. What would it be like to genuinely feel the kind of urgency I feel about my own life, toward everyone I know?

How hard it is to love the Jews you’re with. And how vital.


[Image: “Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur”, Gottlieb (1878)]