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The Highest Holy Day

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur

Image via Wikipedia

Good Yontiff. May you have an easy fast.

That’s the traditional greeting for Yom Kippur, the Highest Holy Day on the Jewish calendar, which is today. Theoretically I am not supposed to be blogging, since it’s work, and one is not supposed to work, or do much of anything else today, other than fast, pray, meditate on the past year’s sins, and atone for them, at least inwardly. (I don’t actually need an excuse, since I’m not religious, but I have one anyway: I’ve been so busy with a ghostwriting gig for the past month, I haven’t had much chance to blog, so I’m taking advantage of the holiday. Hey, I could’ve blogged about baseball instead!)

Disclaimer: Take nothing I say here as the gospel truth. I was raised culturally Jewish, not religiously. I hardly even went to synagogue as a kid; anything I’ve picked up has been as an adult, mostly from friends and the occasional Jewish service. Even now, I rarely go to temple, and only some years to Yizkor on Yom Kippur, where one says prayers for close relatives who’ve died. I started doing that in 1981, the year after my father’s death; my mother died in 2005, or 5766 on the Jewish calendar.

The following explanation of Yizkor is from

At this service, one recites Yizkor elohim (may G-d remember). Prayer books have individualized paragraphs to be recited for a deceased mother, father, male relative (including husband, son, brother, uncle and grandfather), female relative (including wife, daughter, sister, aunt and grandmother), extended family and martyrs. They all follow the same pattern: the prayer asks G-d to remember the soul of the deceased and pledges to give charity on the deceased’s behalf. The person asks that the deceased’s soul be bound in the “Bond of Life” together with the souls of the forefathers and mothers and the other righteous people in the Garden of Eden. The pledge to charity is included because of the belief that an act of charity will contribute to redeeming a soul, and the prayer essentially asks G-d to take note of the charity and let it be a merit for the soul of the relative.

After the individuals recite the Yizkor prayer quietly, the Prayer Leader recites another prayer beginning El malei rahamim (“God, full of compassion”), which is similar in content to the Yizkor prayer. This is said on behalf of all the deceased for whom Yizkor was said. This same prayer is recited at funerals and at the synagogue on the anniversary of a family member’s death. The Yizkor service concludes with a prayer called av harachamim, which prays for the souls of all Jewish martyrs. Some congregations specifically mention those who were killed by the Nazis.

For a father (and all males):

May G-d remember the soul of my father, my teacher (mention his Hebrew name and that of his mother) who has gone to his [supernal] world, because I will — without obligating myself with a vow — donate charity for his sake. In this merit, may his soul be bound up in the bond of life with the souls of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and with the other righteous men and women who are in Gan Eden; and let us say, Amen.

For a mother (and all females):

May G-d remember the soul of my mother, my teacher (mention her Hebrew name and that of her mother) who has gone to her [supernal] world, because I will – without obligating myself with a vow – donate charity for her sake. In this merit, may her soul be bound up in the bond of life with the souls of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and with the other righteous men and women who are in Gan Eden; and let us say, Amen.

Yom Kippur is the last of the Jewish New Year observances, which began ten days ago, on Rosh Hashonah. To me, the Yom Kippur services are the most moving of any Jewish observances. Once or twice I did the whole bit — fasted and spent the entire day in temple, crying my way through the prayers, even those in Hebrew I couldn’t understand. They’re designed to evoke emotion, and also, as the Jewish are most famous for evoking, guilt. The closing prayers reduce me to a puddle, and inspire me with a fervent desire to be a better person.

After taking us down to the lowest depths, this guiltfest ends, and in most synagogues they now pull you back up. Everyone holds hands while the children in the congregation come forward and stand in front. They begin tearing tiny pieces from a loaf of challah that’s then passed around to everyone else. Thus, after being dragged through an emotional trip as intense as any substance- or therapy-induced session I’ve ever had, at sunset they lift you into joyfulness. I once took a goyishe boyfriend with me to all-day services, and he said it was like those of every religion ever invented. Not only don’t I  agree, I was a bit offended. I’ve been to other religious services (not naming names!), and never felt so deeply moved. Maybe it’s because I feel more connected to Judaism – but I doubt it.

Do I “believe” in any of this? No. I do not believe, first of all, in a supernatural being – though I’m not convinced one doesn’t exist either. I suppose that makes me agnostic. I certainly don’t believe that by praying today I’ll have some kind of effect on the souls of my dead parents, or that I’ll further my own chances of not dying this year. (One asks to be “inscribed in the Book of Life” for another year.) But belief is not the point. If these rituals comfort me, if they inspire me to meditate on the deeds I’ve committed during the past year and the direction I want to go in; if they make me feel good remembering my mother and father in the presence of members of the tribe from which they and I are descended – that’s more than enough reason to participate, in whatever way I choose to do so.

And speaking of other ways to participate: for the last 15 or so years my friend Corky, a famous San Franciscan (I say famous because she’s lived here so long and has been so active, at least half the SF population knows her), has been inviting women to her home almost every Yom Kippur morning to read Jewish related poetry or prose. Word goes out to the women’s community, and different people show up every year. Some know nothing about Judaism – some aren’t even Jewish; others went to Hebrew school and are thoroughly educated. It’s like a (very) informal study group. Corky fasts, so anyone who wants to eat – which is most of us – must bring their own food and keep it out of sight. These “services” last two or three hours, after which some of us trudge over to a synagogue – usually SF’s gay and lesbian congregation – for services.

One of my most memorable Days of Atonement was the year that Susan parked in a place she thought was exempt from parking laws on this holy day, and got towed. She, Corky and I had to leave services early to deal with it. We asked two women who’d been at Corky’s house earlier if they’d drive us, and they refused.

During the cab ride to the tow lot, the three of us sang “Everybody must get towed,” (to the tune of Everybody must get stoned, of course), and talked about the irony of what had happened, of the women who wouldn’t give us a ride on this Day of Atonement.  Naturally, the car situation took up the rest of our Holy Day. We three felt we’d gotten as much out of the experience as we would have gotten in temple. And the two who stayed behind to pray? Needless to say, they were not invited back to services at Corky’s house again.

Gmar chatima tova. May you be written in the Book of Life for good.


3 responses »

  1. I love this Marcy.

  2. Thanks, Susie Q! — Marcy Sheiner

  3. I just reread it.

    This piece, your writing, touches me in a sweet way that is soothing to my sometimes abused-feeling soul, spirit, heart what ‘ere.

    Thanks again dear Marcy
    love always

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