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September 25th, 2012

My Own Private Yom Kippur

The holiest day of the Jewish year is upon us. The Day of Atonement, the ritual fast. "For on this day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before God" (Leviticus 16:30).

I always thought it was interesting and curious that atonement for the previous year came a week after the New Year's holiday. Why not the other way around? Why celebrate first and not after?

The Jews, of course, knew what they were doing. We do not begin the New Year until the past year—its transgressions, its sins—have been atoned for.

Jews the world over acknowledge the holiday in different ways. Many fast, abstain from work, washing, sex, the wearing of leather, the "anointing" of the body.

Some don't do anything at all.

For many, it is a day of prayer and meditation; a day of standing up and sitting down in synagogue. There's Kol Nidre, the evening service with the hauntingly beautiful music that moves me to tears. There's the morning service and in the afternoon, the Yizor memorial service, a time to commemorate those who have died.

It is a long day for all, a day of stomach pangs and fatigue, family and failed attempts at reading transliterated Hebrew. Finally, there's the Neilah, the "closing of the gates" service at sunset.

During the course of the day, Jews confess their sins eight times and recite Psalms almost constantly.

Growing up in a reform Jewish family with leanings towards agnosticism, we didn't belong to a synagogue. My mother rejected the Brooklyn conservative Judaism she grew up with. My father wasn't interested in instituionalized religion. A philosophy major in college,  he read the Old Testament to us at supper. We were rapt at his sunset readings in our dining room on Riverside Drive.

Despite this (or maybe because of it), I felt drawn to the rituals of Judaism in a very private way. It's interesting that a connection to spirituality can well up inside of you at a young age even if it is not enforced—or overtly discussed.

Oddly, I longed for ritual. Maybe as a reaction to its lack in my family life. So I would secretly fast on Yom Kippur, somewhat half-heartedly, because I wanted a part of it.

My Judaism was personal and private. Something that I grappled with alone.

For complex reasons, I have never joined a synagogue so I am a wandering Jew when it comes to the High Holy Days. I have tried many of the congregations in Park Slope. Each has its own flavor, its own style. Often I go to Congregation Beth Elohim, where my sister is a member and I feel very comfortable. I have also been to Kolot Chayenu, which meets in the big church on Sixth Avenue, around the corner from me.

Still, I always feel like an outsider because my Judaism is a private thing that wells up inside me. Maybe that's where my synagogue is. Inside of me where it was when I was a little girl when I was grappling with these feelings in my very own way.

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