Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur–the New Year and Day of Atonement respectively–form the apex of traditional Jewish observance. During these High Holidays, we are meant to start fresh and then repent for the mistakes of the previous year. This, you may note, is an uncommon sequence for two common enough things. Normally one figures out what they’ve done wrong before beginning new ventures. Not us Jews. When we start fresh, it is with our past mistakes hiding in our carry-on luggage like an overlooked pair of fingernail scissors. Putting the holidays in this order is a tricky way of making sure we don’t forget too much of our history.
In my case, what I’d like to forget is that I’m supposed to do something for the High Holidays in the first place. I’m an expatriate and a non-practicing Jew with a non-Jewish wife. The entirety of my Jewish observance over the past year consisted of eating something fried for Hanukkah and calling my family from overseas during Passover seder. This, I’m sure, does not sit exceptionally well with any of the four rabbis I’m directly related to.
What are my High Holiday plans? I have none.
While my lack of planning may not be well received in my family or community, it won’t shock anyone. I have a long and respectable history of having no plans for the High Holidays.
My earliest remembered observances of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur took place in my father’s temple in rural Massachusetts. Itchy suits, poorly padded seats, interminable services: welcome to the High Holidays! Honestly, I dreaded them. The rabbi’s son sat with his presentable family in the front row for a full docket of services, sermons and squirming. I counted the minutes like any other child. Unlike my peers, however, my absence would have been cause for comment. That only added to the appeal of a disappearing act.
To be a teenager is to rebel. Too young to date or drink, I chose temple as the subject of my pre-pubescent contrariness. This caused disappointingly little consternation. When I told my esteemed father I’d have a holier experience sitting by myself in the park, he told me to try it. That Rosh Hashanah, I sat in the park for an hour instead of going to evening services. The crickets chirped, the sun set, and the mosquitoes feasted but I did not wear a suit and I sat on grass instead of foam-padded metal. I also learned a lesson: religion is where you find it and only if you’re really looking. I was not looking. The trappings of religion surrounded my youth and I sought something novel.
As I left home, through college and out the other side, I continued to escape attending services. I knew that my absence during them caused dismay, but services made me miserable. Occasionally, I’d let guilt or more direct pressure corral my butt back into a suit and a seat and a service. More often, I’d be elsewhere, volunteering to babysit my nieces for example.
Once, while my sister was a student rabbi, I showed my support by visiting her pulpit for a High Holiday service. Although it was impressive to see my older sibling leading the congregation, the effect was diminished by her cantor’s offering an ill-timed eulogy for Orville Redenbacher. Obviously, I had not come to temple seeking an homage to a popcorn magnate, but during the speech I wondered what I had hoped to hear instead. Was there some undiscovered meaning for me in group prayer? Did I care to ferret it out? The answer was still no. Outside of my sister’s sermon, the service left me as unmoved as ever.
This year marks the first I’ve lived in a foreign country and only the second that I’ve been married. I’ve been travelling during the holidays before, but I’ve never flat-out lived an ocean away from my parents and siblings. They’re in San Francisco. My wife and I live in Australia. One might suppose that the perceived distance between us could be bridged by attending High Holiday services on our separate continents, the common traditions somehow spiritually uniting us. Even if that’s so, I won’t be finding out this year. I’ll call my parents on Rosh Hashanah to wish them a sweet new year. In the days preceding Yom Kippur, I’ll offer my apologies to those I love for my transgressions. Those transgressions will include skipping services. Again.
As a Jew, every year I start fresh and then look back. Living in Australia is as fresh a start as I’ve ever managed. Looking back this year, I’ll need to apologize for not being the Jew my family dreamed. I won’t need to apologize, however, for being too tied up in past mistakes to start fresh in the first place. I’ve found a balance. It may not be right for everyone, but it’s working for me.
I hope in the end, that’s what my family would prefer.