Friday, September 10, 2010

Days of Awe

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe. This is not something I had any awareness of as a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, putting on holiday clothes to gather, with my friends, at the synagogue (a.k.a. schul) I could see from my living room window. Going to services was something you just did, whether or not you knew the full import of why you did it. My mother didn't go (she was busy cooking), and my father went on occasion (if not religiously), always for the Yizkor service in memory of the dead on Yom Kippur. So it goes: we celebrate the new year with apples and honey, we atone for our sins, we connect with loved ones no longer with us.

If the memory of rituals I did not understand, with all their power, is imprinted, so is the sense that my Jewish upbringing was more cultural than spiritual. Yes, all those life events − the birth of a new baby (and the rituallstic brith for a boy), the bar and bat mitzvah, the weddings and funerals − were done (almost) to the letter of the law. But little by little something gave way. Dairy products and meat might never appear on the table at the same time, but the dishes used for each would be interchangeable. Maybe in the days of old there were reasons for observing the rules of kashrut. But these are modern times, and modern times bring new ways of doing things. You don't have to be Jewish to know you can make an argument for anything. You don't have to be a Jewish mother to know that there are strategies more powerful than guilt to keep families together at holiday time. You don't have to be too sentimental to long for something that seems farther removed with each passing generation.

If, as a young girl I came to see Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as days of eating and fasting, as a grown woman who loves the power of language I relish hearing that explication in the rabbi's sermon about these 'days of awe.' My curiosity takes me further, to a book by the Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon, where I read: "Because the world is judged by its majority, and the individual judged by the majority of his deeds, happy is the man who does a single good deed, for he tips the balance in his favor and that of the world. Woe is him, if he commits one transgression, for he tips the balance against himself and the world." And even within that scale of sins, some carry a heavier weight than others, the point being that 'awe,' as in reverence or even fear, is intended as a way of examining the pages of one's life between those bookend days of judgment and atonement. And then we eat.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a thoughtful piece. My personal observance of Jewish holidays goes from falling asleep during sermons at our conservative synagogue as a child, to questioning the existence of God as an 18 year old who had just lost her mother, to sending my own children to Hebrew school and bar mitzvah training and now...quitting our reform synagogue and essentially skipping observance of all the Jewish holidays. I still love the wonderful customs, traditions and food...but the fact remains, I am and always will be a Jew. And feeling the guilt!!