Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The World After Yom Kippur

After Yom Kippur, the world is a different place.

Sequestered in synagogue for the better part of 25 hours, the fellowship known as the Jewish People bond in prayer and humility forged by physical deprivation and the acknowledgement of the day's sanctified purpose: standing before God on The Day of Judgment...Yom Ha-Din.

It takes something quite beyond cynicism to deny the power of the day, the spiritual and emotional power of gathering together with hundreds or thousands of those who are focused on the same, the knowledge that around the world, millions more are likewise occupied in their respective time-zones with their unique traditions.

The power of the day is assisted by a belief in God but not dependant upon it. Yom Kippur exists on its own merit -- a freestanding Tent of Meeting between humans and their souls...and perhaps God.

Even for those like me who have davening ADD and find it difficult to remain focused on prayer after, say, 60 minutes, Yom Kippur is a deeply transformative day.

As I sit typing these words, three hours after the conclusion of the fast, I am a different person than the one who entered the holiday filled with dread, casting a fearful eye toward the endless hours in shul, the inevitable caffeine-withdrawal headache, the hunger pangs, the nagging thirst, the sorrow that inevitably bubbles up in the back of my throat at the contemplation of all that is tragic in human existence.

And of course, dread of the intimate encounter with God, the prospect of baring my soul in front of Him/Her, working up the spiritual stamina to confront the task of the day, resolve to allow the powerful prayers to sweep through me, igniting uncomfortable thought, painful memory, regret, insight, resolution, acceptance, cleansing, change.

This Yom Kippur felt momentous in many ways...HOBB (husband of Bungalow Babe) just turned 60, our oldest recently celebrated his 25th birthday, our middle one turned 21 and our youngest entered High School. But it wasn't just the chronological milestones that lent the day a different dimension. Over the course of the day, HOBB and I felt moved to take stock of the joint monument we had built over the past quarter century...this family, our shared passions, our travels, adventures, achievements, heartaches, losses, joyous moments, arguments, political differences, religious clashes, epiphanies, disappointments, little and large moments, memories of Yom Kippurs past, hopes for our shared future.

We talked about our childhood memories of the day -- HOBB with his beloved aunts Minnie and Paulie at the very same synagogue we attend today -- Ramath Orah; me, as a rabbi's child, overawed by the somber decorum of the day, sitting in a new holiday dress on a pew with my mother and siblings, face tilted upwards as my father preached to hundreds of rapt congregants, looking like John F. Kennedy in a flowing white robe and white satin yarmulke. We recalled our first Yom Kippur -- as honeymooners in Jerusalem 26 years ago; a Harvard Hillel service with our firstborn infant; a homegrown service in our Tudor home in Westchester; many years spent with my parents in Forest Hills with two young children; the Yom Kippur of ten years ago, just before my father-in-law died.

Walking Alfie and Nala the Pomeranians in the brilliant sunshine of Morningside Drive, we plotted future adventures. We felt awed by the very survival of our marriage in a time that is tempestuous, filled with self-driven agenda, deceit and ulterior motive.

I praised HOBB's steadfast nature. I voiced my desire that our children find mates who have this trait, a rarity in the couch-surfing, instant hook-up culture they inhabit. Sounding like Jewish mothers throughout history, I prayed out loud that they find such mates, sooner than later. We regretted the uncoupled lives of people we loved, their thwarted efforts to find worthy mates. We issued prayers for them to find loving companionship as well.

At Ramath Orah, a sea of white prayer shawls and garments sanctified the sanctuary. The air was heavy with prayer. The pews were filled with regular worshippers and holiday visitors alike, many students and faculty from Columbia University. Announcements were made regarding congregants who were sick, in need of prayer or hospital visits. The cantor chanted like a marathon runner, glib and guttural, sure-footed, never tripping, pausing only when the congregants needed to join in song or response. At several points, worshippers abandoned their pews and prostrated themselves on the floor, a practice reserved only for Yom Kippur, thrilling for Jews-who-do-not-genuflect. Downstairs, parents of young children sat around tables, talking, their charges running and occasionally yelling. A group of young teens gathered inside a reading room, giggling and complaining about hunger.

In the mid-afternoon hours, while HOBB slept and Little Babe talked with friends in his room, I lay on our black leather couch, reading Why This World, the new biography of Clarice Lispector, the Ukranian-born Brazilian writer. In the final stretch of the book, Lispector's life takes on shades of mental illness and hardship, owing to the schizophrenia of her oldest son, her insomnia and injuries sustained in an apartment fire. Reading her biography is akin to being burned. So painful did I find the events in the life of this sacred monster that I had to put the book down several times to contemplate the sweep of her life and legacy.

While doing so, I saw my own life through the portal of nearly fifty Yom Kippurs, thought that such a view provided a thoroughly unique way to write the biography of a Jew. By focusing on this one day per year, for every year of one’s life, the microcosm of an individual human life is revealed.

But of course, the activity of Yom Kippur is all inward, hidden from view, accessible only to us and to the author of the Book of Life.

Still, the thought stays with me, hours past the breaking of the fast, that the measure of our lives might be noted by collecting the miscellaneous scribblings of our soul, the utterances of our hearts, the memories and tears, the noble aspirations of our minds in this 25-hour world known as Yom Kippur.