I was born on Yom Kippur, so the holiday has always held a particular fascination for me. When I was young, I would sit in shul and imagine my mother going into labor, hurrying out of the service, and driving herself to the hospital because my father was serving in Vietnam. My mother’s doctor rushed my delivery as he felt it was auspicious to be born on Yom Kippur; however my mother was not convinced.
I have never determined whether a Yom Kippur birthday holds any significance for Jews. Nonetheless, my mother appears to have had the world’s shortest labor as I was born before sundown. While I find it hard to believe this whole tale, Yom Kippur is central to my personal mythology.
I especially cherish the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service — the mournful melody repeated throughout the Conservative service is the essence of the holiday for me. The most powerful Kol Nidre service I have attended was at Sherith Israel in San Francisco. The antique 1904 organ, accompanied by a stringed orchestra seated in the balcony box, so moved me that tears ran down my face throughout almost the entire service. My sister, concerned, kept glancing over, and I finally whispered, “allergies.” I have always meant to take my Muslim husband to that service and perhaps someday that goal will be realized. For years I have pictured us sitting together in the balcony listening to that mournful tune. However, time, money, and lack of vacation days always seem to hinder our best efforts.
As the years go by, I become more entrenched in my career and my life, and I have to admit that High Holiday services have gone by the wayside. Every year I intend to attend them, but because I do not belong to a synagogue it becomes a burden and an expense to secure tickets. Only one synagogue in San Francisco offers free High Holiday services; however, the free service is in a separate location from the service for the regular congregants. I feel like a charity case attending. Then, once we had tickets, we would have to take a vacation day from work in order to attend services.
When I first married my husband, the thought of Ramadan brought anxiety and dread. I imagined fasting, early- and late-hour eating, special foods, and prayer mats. When I finally asked him what rituals he performs for the holiday, he flippantly said, “I try not to hit the bars.” Later, I learned that Ramadan brought the same tremendous guilt to my husband that I had experienced about missing Yom Kippur services. While my husband always intends to fast, he only does so once or twice in the month. He wants to go to the mosque for services but finds it unwelcoming, and in today’s political climate he is nervous about attending too often. As much as I want to go with my husband to the mosque, I cannot abide the gender segregation. Recently, the largest San Francisco mosque, Masjid Darussalam, removed the wall separator, but women are still required to sit behind the men.
During our first Ramadan together I decided to encourage my husband’s religious practice by throwing a Ramadan break-fast dinner at our home. We planned an extensive Indian menu (my husband was born and raised in India) and opted for authenticity — moving the furniture out of our living room and setting up pillows on the floor. We lined the room with candles and as the sun set and the food reheated, our guests arrived. As we ate the food that my husband and I had lovingly prepared the night before, my friends peppered him with questions about the holiday, Islam and the Bay Area Ummah (Muslim community). He and his friends explained the life of a secular Muslim and my friends and I gained a new understanding — that not all Muslims are Orthodox. Non-practicing Muslims feel just as conflicted about their lack of faith or expression thereof as do non-practicing Jews.
Today, as we approach the next High Holidays season, we are bonded in our faith, mutual lapses and our desire to let go of the guilt. While we both have strong religious identities, we do not let others define how we should express our religious beliefs. I no longer mention Ramadan unless my husband does and while my parents will never let me forget that it’s Yom Kippur, we’re happy enough to celebrate my birthday. Well, sort of.