I know it’s not a really good thing, as a Jew, to say that Yom Kippur—namely the whole atonement angle—doesn’t sit right with me. This is the most somber and critical holiday, and I’m sure to question it is practically blasphemous. And yet… every time I think about the word—finding all the related meanings to atonement, like penitence and repentance and remorse—I feel kind of icky, like, wow, I should be feeling badly about myself. And here’s the thing: I beat up on myself so incredibly well so much of the time (ask my dear husband) that I cannot quite fathom the idea that I’m not repentant enough (if I were adequately atoning, if we all were, my guess is we wouldn’t need to have a big somber holiday to vow to let go and then to make amends).

As I said, I am capable of beating myself up about many things: not doing enough, not being present enough for my very lovely sweetie of a spouse, not being good enough (whatever that even means, tape loop does roll), not being organized enough, not eating well enough, not exercising enough, not being tough enough on the kids, not being kind enough to the kids, not being aggressive enough about work, not being successful enough… Shall I go on? I won’t. I will say that not being a good Jew isn’t actually on my (clearly very long) laundry list of ways I don’t measure up. I feel perfectly clear that I’m Jewish; I love celebrating the New Year with apples and honey to remember the sweetness life brings and to wish for the world all the best and I love the spirit of so many stories we tell and retell, the notions of freedom and hope prevailing. I do send my kids to school on the Jewish holidays, given that we are not headed for worship then and I live on the same street as the most established synagogue in town. On Monday morning, Yom Kippur, as was the case just over a week earlier on Rosh Hashanah, I found myself walking up my street—away from the synagogue—as others, specifically the Rabbi, were walking toward it. I dubbed this the “Jewish Walk of Shame.” In truth, we always exchange warm greetings and happy holidays or happy Shabbat and I never feel bad about my this-size-fits-me faith.

A niece, upon hearing about Yom Kippur, kind of got it, apologize for what you do wrong, like pinching your little sister. When told that the second part of what was expected from the holiday was to stop doing the thing you’re apologizing for, she apparently gasped. “Don’t pinch her any more?” she asked. “That would be hard.”

In a way, I don’t think about this whole making amends thing because it seems like between the brothers and the sister (too young to apologize, not too young to bite, hit, and break stuff) and the parents, we’re constantly upsetting one another and apologizing. It’s pretty much a daily practice, not big blow-ups and apologies, necessarily, not major dramas, just small knocks. We are constantly learning how to live together better. Empathy, in a family with four kids, is kind of an essential component to everyone’s happiness. It’s something I think about a lot, probably every day, rather than feeling like a big-ticket concept. It is part and parcel of the rough and tumble that makes living within a brood so engaging (and exhausting). I do love how it’s part of our daily life, even if I don’t always love acting as intermediary between siblings hurting one another’s feelings (or mama, or papa).


Being the recipient of hard stuff is, of course, not limited to siblings or to children. In these tight times, many of us—myself included—find ourselves falling prey to budgetary constraints (is it fun to be a freelancer right now? Not always so much) in the workplace and thus, at home. I’ve had some of that recently, the belt-tightening publications’ news.

As a writer, I am constantly asking for rejection (not because I’m a glutton for punishment, but because I am constantly putting myself out “there”). When I first started to send work out—and to get rejections—I remember thinking that while it sucked, it was probably my choice to pursue this work that involved so much rejection for some reason I could not yet comprehend. After many years and many disappointments (and many satisfying moments of acceptance, too), I have come to see that putting myself out in this way as a writer necessitates developing a rather thick skin. I think I must be enticed by the hope that I get one… eventually, because the flip side to a thick skin is that you have to champion yourself in order not to be beaten down by hard knocks from outside. Some, like budgetary constraints, reflect not one bit upon you (or your work). Other hard knocks or rejections are, as one writing teacher described, resemble your song not belonging on that radio station. You need the right channel. Still, when you hear, no, it’s not always so easy.

Yesterday, out of the blue, I received an apology by someone who’d told me not to bother sending my work to a publication because it wouldn’t be considered seriously there.

At the time, that news, and her delivery of that news stung pretty hard, I’ll be honest. (At parents’ night for the first grade, Remy’s teacher went over the concepts the class is grappling with, including fair does not always mean equal. At the time of this particular rejection, the idea that my work wouldn’t get a read because it was too “political” gnawed at me as patently unfair, although perhaps the grown-up equivalent to fair isn’t equal is that not everything is fair). I thought—to borrow the radio channel metaphor—this was a pretty obvious channel for me. It took me a little while, some metaphoric radio dial twirling, and some self-coaching—tough skin, tough skin, editors really represent one person’s opinion, after all—to move on, but I did. And while I felt hurt, I told myself that the hurt came more from the soft skin than how the person shared this information.

To hear her tell the story a couple of years later, the hurt came in some large part from the telling; she admitted she hadn’t shared the information in the spirit of kindness. It wasn’t that she’d meant to be hurtful. In hindsight, she’d been feeling insecure and so had tossed some power around in order to feel more powerful in a work situation that she found intimidating. In retrospect, she realized she had been unkind. She said that had she been given similar news in that same way, her feelings would have been terribly hurt. She’d been holding onto that sense of remorse for a long time.

In this season of amends—or her personal season of amends—she made one. I have to admit, I appreciated this kind and brave gesture much more than I’d have imagined. Even though I thought I’d let the original hurt go and didn’t require an apology, I was deeply moved by her willingness to own up—to say she’d only been treated kindly by me and repaid it badly—and to take a risk in sharing this with me.


So, maybe I have to reconsider big-ticket atonement.

Meantime, between yesterday’s really generous apology on the part of my friend and learning about how the first graders are mediating fairness and playing with one another and grappling with that hard concept of being responsible for your own conduct but not others’ and that other hard concept of everyone’s best isn’t the same (and can still count as “best”) and fair isn’t always equal, what becomes clear is that on this earth throughout our lives, empathy is a prize to keep eyes focused upon. Sorry, as any parent mediating disputes between siblings or parent and child will tell you, can be a pretty empty word.

Empathy comes a couple giant steps after sorry. Maybe, that’s what Yom Kippur’s trying to get us Jews, observant or not, to realize. Empathy’s hard. Certainly, it deserves more than a day. As the first grade teachers and many parents, friends—including my friend, the Rabbi—would all agree it necessitates a comfy, prominent berth in our daily life.