Last week, I had one of those great life tutorials, in which my friends gave me lots to chew on. No surprise there: I have received some amazing gifts in my life and friends rank pretty high on that list, a bunch of smart, funny, compassionate, fun, supportive, thoughtful doers. So, last week, I wrote about my personal discomfort with Yom Kippur, which, let’s be clear (especially if you are not Jewish and wouldn’t know this) is the most holy holiday, a time of remembrance and a time for atonement. Through the writing of the piece—and people’s responses—I had a chance to practice some of Yom Kippur’s principles and to learn more in the process. And my friends helped me to do so.
Now, the way I’ve always interpreted atonement is to focus upon the make amends/repent emphasis on the word—and to feel kind of badly about whatever wrongs I have personally done. That’s kind the way the day was described to me. I never questioned it (although, I’m realizing I should have); I just took it as part of my parents’ rationale for their disinterest in Judaism (during my childhood, at least; I will not speak to present day).
In any case, my parents were not observant and we did not go to synagogue for high holy days or any other. My mother told her mother that in Philadelphia—as opposed to Nashville, Tennessee where my mother grew up and her side of the family lived—there were so many Jews belonging to a congregation in order to feel that sense of belonging as a Jewish person was unnecessary, which, as it was always relayed to me, was the primary and sole reason my grandparents were so active in their congregation. When we went to Nashville, we went to synagogue sometimes. If indeed, the point of the Werthan family’s involvement with the reform congregation in Nashville was to telegraph their being Jewish, they sure did so. My grandfather was congregation’s President. The building is big and doesn’t look particularly different from all the other big churches in Nashville’s West End. This is to say, it fits in. For the record, my father’s parents also belonged to a congregation in Manhattan, and I ended up inside on a few occasions, one or two weddings, my grandparents’ memorial services.
Like visiting family—both sides of my family lived somehow in very different worlds than mine, Nashville, the South, the close presence of extended family and an elite, powerful version of Manhattan, both far removed from the Philadelphia where I lived, not anonymously, but with family much lower on the radar—Judaism always seemed part of extended families’ worlds more than part of my day-to-day life.
Without writing too detailed a religious odyssey-autobiography here, I will briefly mention that I ended up at Germantown Friends School, where I studied Quakerism (a requirement) and attended Meeting for Worship (also a requirement), and loved Meeting. Farm and Wilderness Camps deepened my love for Quakerism in action. During and after college, I attended Mt. Toby Friends Meeting. I thought a lot about joining. Finally, the Christianity piece stopped me short.
It wasn’t that Judaism necessarily matched my faith, either. However, it’s my birthright and when our kids arrived, I felt compelled to explore it more seriously, so they would know their heritage and the associated stories.
What resonated from my time at Friends Meeting is how much strength can be drawn from being part of a community gathered to explore faith. To me, the beauty of Friends’ Meeting is that no one is told what to have faith in, but there is such a strong sense of shared quest. We joined Beit Ahavah, the local reform congregation, which meets at the Florence Congregational Church (one of my very favorite parts, actually, this sharing of space amongst different faiths, talk about community of faith!). Long story short: much as I loved so much about being part of that community (and still feel connected to the people), enrollment didn’t really work for our family. I didn’t feel strongly enough to drag my kids to Sunday school (and as pretty much any parent will tell you, getting to Sunday school does involve some dragging). I liked the community and stories and the earnest endeavor of making community… I just couldn’t be devoted to the endeavor myself. So, it kind of slipped away from my day-to-day life, and I didn’t miss it (although seeing some of those people more regularly, I do miss).
Did I consider Friends’ Meeting or the other refuge of many not-so-religiously-inclined-seekers, the Unitarian Society? Honest answer: not really. I decided that I’d find some ways to explore Judaism and that the tenets I held most dear—community, compassion, questioning—I could nurture in many different ways at home (and believe that we do). Would we be missing something? I knew the answer to that was, of course.
From reading and talking to friends, including writer and Jewish educator Amy Meltzer whose Homeshuling blog speaks to practicing Judaism primarily at home, it’s possible to feel as committed and engaged as you want without formal affiliation. Indeed, during my years as a Hampshire College student I babysat for kids whose families had formed a havarah, which translates, I think, to a group of families and friends. I loved that crew and their joy in gathering to learn and teach and explore and laugh and eat.
In my household, we eat apples and honey for the New Year, in essence wishing sweetness to the world and to one another. At Passover, we make a Seder with dear friends (close as family) and do so to accommodate kids’ schedules (from ballet to bedtimes). We used to go to Philadelphia for Passover, a longstanding, woman-led Seder my mother co-hosts with one of her dear friends (but as things like ballet and school demands overtake, we go less often). In adapting to everyone’s needs, we’ve enjoyed the Passover Seder brunch and last year, our Seder took a new turn: the kids protested (this was dinnertime not brunch) the Haggadah entirely and so we closed our books. What ensued was a long discussion about making peace and the obstacles to do so, about overcoming long odds, and what we think long odds (the plagues) are now. By the end of the meal, the kids were pleased with themselves to have forgone tradition and the adults were pleased to have explored some of the holiday’s themes deeply enough that we thought, just perhaps, our kids would remember them.
One reader questioned in essence whether I was making light of such a holy time. We had a good back-and-forth about how buttons can be pushed unawares. She led me to think—as I have done about many issues—about how a seemingly benign remark can sting, even though that was expressly not your intention. I always appreciate the chance to know how my ideas sit with others, when they resonate and when they create dissonance.
Other people in my life chimed in, too, about this little word—sorry—and this big concept—atonement—and the ways we can embrace them both.
“Sorry," wrote one friend, “can be a very empty word, especially amongst siblings. And that's all right, they learn empathy in time.” She’s a parent of four, as well, and she’s echoing my experiences. I like that idea of learning empathy over time. As my kids have gotten older—or perhaps, through the Bush years when the world beyond me felt increasingly beyond my control—I’ve worked harder to actively encourage, maybe even teach, a sense of empathy to my children. Sometimes, that seems like the one thing I can actually try to pass on that will mean a lot in how my children move through their lives. It feels better to care about others, period. But it’s not always an innate quality, even though it is a more comfortable way—overall—to live one’s life.
Another friend wrote, “I think of the kind of work Yom Kippur is about is very different than the ‘beating yourself up’ that you describe, and is so familiar to many of us. That's an entirely internal process – atoning is about expanding our reflection not only to those we've directly hurt, but something greater than ourselves, whether you call that god, or karma, or whatever inadequate term…. a reminder that what we do impacts the community and the universe. Also, asking everyone to come together on one day and express our atonement can remind us that we are not alone in our imperfections – that we all have work to do.”
Lastly, another friend wrote, “The ‘beating ourselves up’ that we do is not really atonement, but a more self-centered affair. For many of us, it is daily and ongoing, and is often tied up with issues of self-esteem, neurosis, or even depression. It is rarely constructive.
To me, Yom Kippur is about being aware of how our behavior can affect those around us. It is about acknowledging our mistakes and resolving to do better. It is about backing up this resolution with action. It about feeling empathy for those we've hurt and letting them know that we are truly sorry, WITHOUT beating ourselves up. It is about accountability rather than guilt. It is about a mindfulness of our spiritual selves where we can envision and act upon our higher nature, thereby positively affecting those we've hurt as well as the world around us. Yom Kippur is, at its core, a positive, not a negative day.”
Okay, then. As ever, my friends have given me some incredible fodder and already I find myself thinking about how I might mark the day next year.