Last Saturday morning I was at loose ends, restless, my stomach growling. It was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, one of the holiest days in Judaism. Though I’m not particularly observant –- my spirituality is an eclectic mishmash of several traditions – Judaism is my home base, a tradition woven into my DNA.
Recently, I’ve felt a bit lost, since I don’t belong to a synagogue. In the Jewish community, temple membership covers most, but not all of the cost of running a congregation, and High Holiday tickets come with temple dues. This year I decided not to renew my membership, since the temple is located in Brookline and my preferred service is at 6 PM on Fridays, a time when it is virtually impossible to get from my apartment in Medford to Brookline in less than an hour. Of course the temple has not moved –- I lived in Somerville and Medford when I was an active member in the early ‘00s –- but I no longer have the dedication to drive across the river on a weekly basis, and membership costs more than $1,000/year.
So, there I was, a lone hungry Jew with no place to go, with no ticket to High Holiday services. Yom Kippur is supposed to be about reflection –- on how to be a better person, to make amends to those we have wronged, to ask for the gift of another year in the book of life. I always feel some ambivalence around the High Holidays, the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur, since my concept of God –- is anyone up there listening, and is he/she/it paying attention to me or to humankind in general? –- is murky at best. Growing up, my family observed the holidays as a cultural event – we’d go to the brief services at our Reform temple, chat with friends, and then go home for lunch around Noon on Yom Kippur, despite a rather stern commandment that one was supposed to refrain from food and drink for a full 25 hours.
But in my 40s, as an enthusiastic member of a Brookline synagogue, I developed a network of friends –- mostly younger, single and straight, though a few were gay –- and found the rituals of the holidays, the turning of the wheel, to be comforting.
Over the last five years or so, I drifted away from the community, as the novelty of the Friday night services wore off. I seemed to stand on a precipice, where I could either go deeper into observance, figuring out what various aspects of the Torah and Jewish law really meant, or just hang out at my current low-maintenance level of knowledge and gradually lose interest. Going deeper meant spending Saturday mornings in temple and actually reading, studying and learning from a text that seemed mostly archaic and irrelevant to me.
Instead I took the path of least resistance and did nothing. At the same time I became a regular attendee and member at Arlington Street Church, a mostly gay church that is warm and accepting, and enables me to hang out with several of my old (nominally Christian) friends. For several years, I balanced both worlds, attending synagogue on Friday nights and ASC on Sunday mornings, a mix that served me well.
But now I was facing a long day without connection. I had decided to fast, and I always attend Yizkor, the afternoon memorial service for the dead, where I could say a special prayer (the Kaddish) for my father. Though my dad didn’t believe in a traditional God, he would always go to Fairmount Temple on the afternoon of Yom Kippur and say prayers for his father, a man who died two years before my birth. And so I drove to the temple, and wandered toward the building, a bit nervously, feeling like an interloper.
The first person I saw was my friend Michelle, a thin, willowy woman who was part of a neighborhood "family" group that spun out of our temple, and met monthly for several years. She greeted me warmly, and soon I saw several others whom I used to see regularly, and who welcomed me back as a long lost friend.
The language of the prayer book, when I read the translations, was still stern and patriarchal, a reminder of the angry father in the sky I don’t fully believe in. But standing in that room, I felt the Hebrew chants, the pounding of a drum, the tribal gathering of this ancient people I am a part of, no matter how much I doubt the rituals, and resist the faith. As the clock ticked toward 8 o’clock, the end of the service and the freedom to eat again –- to stuff my face with a renewed sense of gratitude –- I let go of the language, and momentarily let the prayers, the chanting, the rhythm pass over me.
For one evening, I’d found my place in a synagogue in Brookline. And for now, that is enough.
Judah Leblang is a writer and storyteller in Boston. His upcoming show "One Man’s Journey through the Middle Ages" is part of a special ‘Words and Songs’ event at Arlington Street Church on Saturday October 5 at 7:30 PM. Tickets ($15) and more info are at judahleblang.com.