Yom Kippur 5774: A Hard, Hard Day

Shana tova! Happy New Year! This is my first post of the New Year, 5774, and unfortunately, the themes of tension in this post are feelings that have accompanied the beginning of the year. At the same time, there are good things happening too, but it is hard to feel comfortable when I can’t get my mind off other things causing me anxiety. We are still in the middle of the hagim, Jewish holidays, though and I have hope that things will get a bit easier and more joyful soon.

Now, to the story of my Yom Kippur.

Moving to a new place soon before the holidays isn’t too much fun. On the one hand, you get to test drive a bunch of synagogues in a short amount of time, but you aren’t really able to have a strong connection to a community that feels truly yours for some really important days of the year. Luckily, finding a few synagogues to frequent for services hasn’t been too tough, but it does make me a bit homesick for my congregation where I converted.

The melodies of Yom Kippur are some of my favorite in the Jewish liturgical year. I feel like as soon as Yom Kippur is over, the melodies that my soul has poured forth retreat and spend all year dancing around in my head just waiting to be released at the first Slichot service the next year, a service just a few days before the Jewish New Year and about two weeks before Yom Kippur.  I am in that stage right now, still humming the sounds that filled last weekend, and just like last year, they will never go away but just continue to build inside of me until I can sing them out again next year, G-d willing. The way I think of the melodies is a good description of the way I think of Yom Kippur in general. It is close to the beginning of the year, but in so many ways, I see it as the culmination and climax of the preceding year. All moments of 5773 lead up to that point, Yom Kippur 5774, where I stare soberly at where I have been and where I hope to go and all I can do is pray.

After spending hours in services on Yom Kippur morning, a friend and I took a walk. On this walk we discussed our own unique experiences of the holidays and more broadly community and identity. He raised many thought provoking questions for me. The sheer amount of questions and difference of perspective caused me to turn inward once again and reflect on difficult and challenging experiences of years past. Overwhelming feelings of loneliness, sadness, and absence swallowed me. I felt uneasy and anxious. These are feelings I had been bottling up for months. Feelings that would come in strong waves and then buried deep inside of me to the point where I didn’t feel anything at all. That is the way I experience depression, having no feelings at all. It took a cold grey day in September, filled with prayer, reflection and hunger, to surface these feelings. I wanted to escape them. I was scared, but I knew I had to face them. I had to sit with the heartache so I could feel again, the good and the bad. Following the dramatic mood, I found myself an isolated spot in a mostly deserted parking lot and lied down. As my head  hit the pavement, tears hit my cheeks.  Tears from bottled up pain that had kept me from truly forgiving myself for all the hurt I put myself through. All the judgements I placed on myself. The lack of self care I took. The last tears were shed before Neilah, the last prayer service of Yom Kippur, when the gates are closed and are fate is sealed.

Was this final act of repentance done in time?  My fate for the year to come is unknown to me, but either way, I am prepared to continue to reflect and grow stronger. I am prepared to sit with my feelings no matter how uncomfortable, as to avoid the possibility of not feeling anything at all. I am prepared to fully inhabit these feelings, to fully feel them so I can fully live life.

My rabbi once gave a dvra torah where he said (I am paraphrasing) a day fully experienced is a day with laughing, crying, and learning. Although this was said years ago, it has stuck with me and I often fall back on this thought. With this idea, Yom Kippur 5774, really was the first day I have fully experienced in some time, and that makes me extremely grateful for the hard, hard day. 

Yom HaZikaron 5773

This evening and tomorrow, until nightfall, is Israel’s Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron. I heard that the day was going to be very different than the United States’ Memorial Day, which is usually celebrated as a day off with a trip to the beach and some barbecue. I grew up visiting cemeteries every Memorial Day with my grandfather who would place American flags at the graves of all our family members that served in the military, which is quite a few. Even with all the time spent at different grave sites, I never thought of the day as a somber day. Israel’s observance of Yom Hazikaron is similar to the observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was just about a week ago. Many restaurants and stores have closed this evening. The only way to know it isn’t Shabbat is from the amount of cars still driving through the streets.

After watching Israelis of various backgrounds observing a minute of silence on Holocaust Remembrance Day, I knew I wanted to get a better view for the moment of silence for Memorial Day. The first siren for the day was at 8:00 p.m. Just a few minutes before I left my apartment to walk towards a park that was filled with people and near a major intersection. With just a couple of minutes to spare I found my way to the top of a bridge overlooking the park and many Jerusalem streets below. I watched cars and people pass. The siren began. I knew it was coming, that was why I was standing on the bridge after all, yet I was taken completely by surprise. My heart skipped a beat and I stopped breathing for a split second as the stillness took over the city below me. Balls stopped bouncing. Bicycle wheels halted, and dare I believe that even the dogs stopped in their tracks. As far as my eyes could see, people stood on their feet in absolute silence. Cars abandoned. Conversations paused. For that minute, it felt as even thoughts were suspended. It was truly one of the most moving sights I have ever witnessed. It was one of those moments where I am more grateful than I thought I ever could be to be in Israel.

Thank you to all the soldiers and other service men and women who have made it possible for not only me but millions to call Israel “Home”.

My First Christmas… as a Jew

Merry Christmas to all those who are celebrating, including my much missed family!

Spending this Christmas in Israel was something I looked forward to since last Christmas. Last Christmas went really well, but I knew that this one would be even harder as a Jew. I had already distanced myself from the holiday but of course, celebrated with family. I knew this Christmas would put everyone on edge. My family already pays special attention to what I eat and don’t eat, wear and don’t wear and pray and don’t pray. The truth is, no matter how hard I try, as I distance myself from Christmas and other Christian experiences I distance myself from my family. I knew a Christmas away from family would be sad, but I knew it would be also be less stressful and comforting to be surrounded by so many other Jews in Israel.

Now that it is Christmas, I just don’t know if being away is as great as I thought it would be. I wish I was watching my nephews open there presents. I wish I was eating dinner with my family. I actually wish there were lights up on houses and Christmas trees in windows. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas and after having Christmas be the biggest day of the year for all of my life, it is sad.

Even though I most certainly miss Christmas and my family celebrating Christmas, I decided I needed to do something special in my own way. I have never had a “traditional” American Jewish December 25th. My December 25th is going to consist of a Chinese dinner and a random movie. I am excited for the new experience and celebrating what in my mind is a very Jewish, American social custom.

This is part of what going down “another path” means, and even though it is tough, I am even more committed to it now than I was before.

Fasting in Jerusalem- Tenth of Tevet 5773

Today is the tenth of Tevet. I posted my reflections on this day last year.

For some reason, I have always felt a connection to fast days. Even before identifying as Jewish, the first days of the Jewish calendar that observed were fast days.  I don’t exactly know why I feel such a strong connection to them, but an idea I have is that because fasts mark times that were hard for our people. Not only in Judaism, but in every religion. It is a way of mourning during our year. We don’t just remember the past, but we recognize that the wounds are fresh. Time is thrown out the window, and we sit with the communities before us who felt pain and sorrow. This is really the reason I love all holidays, but there is still something special in fasts. I think the lack of extravagance in a fast makes me more apt to reflect more.

With every holiday, I connect myself with the history. This year, being in Jerusalem for a fast about the siege of Jerusalem made it harder to find that connection. It sounds strange that being in the city would challenge me more than help me, but it did. It felt strange mourning over Jerusalem when I was clearly in the modern, Jewish city going about my day. Why mourn when I know how the story is now? I was free to practice my religion in this city along with many, many other Jews.

As the day goes on, I knew there was a way I still related to the biblical story. Maybe Jerusalem is an autonomous Jewish city now, but it is sadly an exceptional instance in history. Although we are free here, there is still a fragility. We need to remember and connect to this day, even in Jerusalem, because it can so easily happen again. If we don’t make a point of mourning the loss that our people had, we risk forgetting how precious, sacred and fragile Jerusalem is for us. It is important to actively remember the day, take action by fasting on the day, in order to inspire action to protect our current Home.

May everyone fasting have a safe and meaningful fast.

Forgiving

Rosh Hashanah is only about a week away, and the approaching High Holy Days bring about responsibility to reflect on actions and emotions of the past year in order to ask those around us for forgiveness. It is only through reaching out to those around us that we can go before Hashem and ask for mercy and forgiveness. With so much concentration on the act of asking for forgiveness it is easy to forget the other half of our job- forgiving.

Right now, I am angry, hurt and bitter. The past few weeks have been a roller coaster of emotions, and I have just been informed of the third death in the past month of someone I loved. As I just began to feel some stability within me, I now feel surrounded by death.

It is hard to try and make sense of the loss and hurt, especially while being overwhelmed by many other stresses and blessings in my life. With Rosh Hashanah so close, I feel that there is a lesson here for me. I need to forgive. I should not only forgiving those family members and friends who have hurt me but also Hashem. I feel anger towards Hashem, mostly because I am frustrated by my lack of understanding. At the same time I am aware that just as I want to stand before those in my life and Hashem and be forgiven, I need to forgive those who have hurt me, including Hashem.

I have no time between now and the Holy Days to go through stages of grief and/or reasonably come to a state of forgiveness, yet I must forgive sincerely. It is hard because I want to be angry. I remind myself that there is a reason that the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer not referring to death but Hashem’s sovereignty, is said after a death. It reminds us that despite death, despite hurt, anger, loss and fear Hashem is in the world and in control. Rosh Hashanah reminds us of the same thing. I am thankful for this helpful reminder in the liturgical year, especially so close to such significant personal loss.

Fast of Tammuz

How secure is our world?

Yesterday, the 17th of Tammuz, the walls of Jerusalem were breached. Today, almost 2000 years later, we are fasting for this breach to our sacred space.

How relevant is the Fast of Tammuz to Jews today. In the year 5772 we are fortunate enough to have Jerusalem and the rest of Israel as a free Jewish homeland. In about two months, I will get on a plane to make this Land my home, but today, by fasting I am recognizing the insecurity of the Land both then and now.

All life is so fragile, not only for Jews and not only Israel. In a world where we constantly struggle to obtain more and are seldolmly satisfied with what we have it is easy to forget that everything sits in an instable state of here today and gone tomorrow. It takes an illness or another’s loss to make us step back and count our blessings, but I feel the 17th of Tammuz comes to remind us that life is uncertain and unsecure. We can experience loss at any moment (and will in just 3 weeks with Tisha b’Av), so let us take time to appreciate everything we have today.