Return

The official name for the atonement that Jews practice during Yom Kippur is “teshuvah,” which is Hebrew for “repentance.” It’s built on the word “shuvah,” or “return.” They are two sides of the same coin. Even if you do not actually go anywhere physically, you have to review your past actions, you have to go back to the people you may have wronged. You can’t make amends without returning—the proof is in the language.

After the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I had a couple months to plot my visit to Los Angeles.

I would drive by myself and stay for about eight weeks. I had two goals: to contact my old friends and to attend services at as many synagogues as possible, objectives that had fused in my imagination.

At the first signs of spring, I packed my car. I kissed my None husband goodbye. Maybe I would return home with elements of his abandoned Judaism that he would willingly embrace.

I had three days of driving to speculate about experiences this trip might bring. Would my friends even want to see me after so many years? Could a non-Jew just saunter into synagogues—especially ultra-Orthodox ones—unannounced?

At the library, I checked out an audio version of the novel Great Expectations—on cassette tape. My car has a tape deck in addition to a CD player and the librarian agreed to extend the due date. Between the classic literature and the outdated technology, I felt like I was traveling toward the past.

The audio version of the Dickens’ novel provided enough hours of story to take up a majority of the drive there with some left over for the way back. I hadn’t thought about it when I picked it, but now as chapter one began to play, I reflected on how appropriate the title. Judaism, like Christianity, is built on great expectations. Jews anticipate the arrival of a messiah just as Christians await the return of a messiah. Both religions help instill life with a sense of optimism—a belief that something good is just around the corner. Now I had great expectations of my own.

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Atonement

When you haven’t eaten in 25 hours and you are dressed like a corpse, somehow it is easier to accept where you’ve gone wrong. Ten days after Rosh Hashanah is the “Day of Atonement,” or Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur, the custom is to refrain from all food and drink for a period of 25 hours. If you really want to go all out, avoid bathing and dress in white to mimic traditional burial garb. It’s also best not to wear shoes, though sages have defined shoes as any footwear made of leather; plastic flip flops or rubber sandals are permitted. It’s fascinating how all these elements work together to send your body a powerful message: you are not the boss.

The sages created a list of 44 sins called “Al Chet” which observant Jews recite 10 times over the course of Yom Kippur in an effort to seek forgiveness. They range from the old-timey (“casting off the yoke”) to others that will never go out of style (“passing judgment”). Some Jews also create personalized lists. They say their lists out loud because publicly admitting one’s sins is a key component of this ritual. The first public admission is supposed to occur before Yom Kippur even starts, just prior to the meal that will sustain you before fasting begins at sunset. The timing of this first confession is intentional: if you choke and keel over during the meal, at least you had a chance to confess. That evening, I was thinking about my L.A. friends and the important events in their lives that I had missed.  Before Phil and I began eating, I announced, “I just want to say I feel terrible for not being there for my friends in Los Angeles. I have failed and I hope to be forgiven.” I suppose this statement appeared apropos of nothing and he looked at me like a ventriloquist’s hand was shoved up my back.

Back at the Unitarian church for the service the next day, I repeated my confession quietly. With my heavy heart and tired body, I did not feel like attempting polite conversation. I snuck in and sat in the back. The entire congregation appeared to favor the rear of the chapel. The community elder who had led the previous service was once again in charge. He said, “This reminds me of my criminal procedure class. No one wants to sit in the front two rows.” Everyone laughed, but I did not detect the celebratory mood of Rosh Hashanah. Now I understood it wasn’t just me—today we were all a bit wary, each of us a criminal in need of forgiveness.

In English, we read aloud a contemporary Al Chet provided on a photocopy. We asked forgiveness for not doing enough “to help the poor,” “to protect our earth, air, and water,” and “to stop violence and war.” We also admitted to “remaining silent or indifferent in the face of discrimination, mockery, and offensive humor.” Even though I try, I suspect somewhere along these lines I have slipped up as well. Next to these ills, my personal sins seemed ridiculously small. Yet I could also see how they were related. They were based on the assumption that I didn’t matter all that much—so what if I hardly spoke out or if I disappeared from the lives of people I loved?

 

P.S. Rabbi Aaron sent an email saying he is travelling for the next week or so. He looks forward to rejoining the conversation when he returns.

Chosen

The life-affirming rite of passage of the bar or bat mitzvah is born of the most basic notion in Judaism: the idea of being “chosen.” To be a Jew is to understand that your life is a purposeful creation; you have been selected by God to exist. The belief that one’s existence is intentional lends meaning to all aspects of the struggle—each day and experience, whether painful or joyous, is significant.

From what I can tell, it’s this notion—the belief in being “chosen”—more than any other that seems to rub non-Jews the wrong way. The problem, I think, is one of misunderstanding: “I am here on purpose” may get interpreted as “God favors me above you.” Or maybe non-Jews understand perfectly well, but the willingness to embrace such a bold claim runs counter to every fiber in their beings. Yet, Jews intended this belief to be embraced by all of humanity, which is why Genesis begins with one man and one woman, both intentionally created, from which all people descend. It is so radical a notion, so powerfully positive. Could it be the bedrock of other affirmative ideas like love and gratitude?

The Jews I grew up with didn’t go around talking about being “chosen.” They never once made reference to it or acted like they were better than anyone else. Yet I sensed a subtle difference in how they existed in the world. They didn’t seem uncertain about whether they deserved to be here, as I was. They may have had a host of other insecurities, but that most fundamental one didn’t appear to be among them. They took up their little bit of space in the world with a confidence I hadn’t realized was possible. During my teenage years, I remained tentative, but my proximity to an alternative outlook was a powerful antidote. I believe it was just enough get me through.

Rosh Hashanah’s encouragement to review my misdeeds brought up these memories because for all the good my time in L.A. did me, and despite how much I appreciated my friends and classmates, once I left the city I rarely returned. My constant moving made staying in touch with anyone from my past challenging and over the years the lines of communication between me and my L.A. gang slowly unraveled. I kept in sporadic contact with one of them, Lisa, who acted as a sort of a lifeline to the others.

In the time since I had last seen my L.A. friends, they had endured the usual hardships 20 years in any life brings, including the death of parents and, heartbreakingly, a would-be fiancé in a horrific auto accident. Yet, I had not offered a phone call or even an email of condolence. What did this failure to reach out say about me? What kind of friend was I? What kind of person?