Although growing up in a conservative Jewish home during the 1950s — holidays observed, Hebrew school and b’nei mitzvah obligatory, laws of kashrut obeyed — I was always caught off guard by the flurry of preparations for the High Holidays. While opining that they had arrived either early or late, my mother fussed over our outfits, which were inevitably too warm for the second summer days or too cool for the brisk fall days that both mark September. The fussing added to my anticipation of the coming year, the quickening of city life after the summer doldrums, and, especially in adolescence, the chance to try on new social identities with peers.
The holidays seemed to come out of nowhere, the summer a wasteland of Jewish practice. Hebrew school ran on a secular calendar, and, although my father would occasionally make vague references to holidays of summer sadness, he did not attend shul. What possible meaning could the destruction of a temple so long ago and commemorated in Tisha B’Av have for Jews striving to be modern in a 1950s sort of way? Having barely survived the Holocaust, we hardly needed another reminder of Jewish suffering and vulnerability. No, in midcentury America, Jews seemed to take the summer off just like everyone else.
Living most of my adult life in academic institutions, I experienced the High Holidays as an awkwardly timed breathing space in the onslaught of start-up activities. Now, after a decade of renewed participation in Jewish life, I see the new year celebration not as a misplaced jolt of spirituality but rather as an integral part of the religious calendar. During the preceding month of Elul we prepare the ground by assessing the cumulative impact of moments of brokenness inside us and others outside in the larger world. The holidays function as culminating event and a fresh beginning.
My new appreciation for the Jewish New Year is layered, built on memories of an earlier time when the fall signaled a moment of return to Jewish practice after the long summer hiatus.
Freshly starched and outfitted — Yom Kippur white shirt, Brooks Brothers tie courtesy of my doting grandmother, and Harris tweed sport jacket courtesy of my older brother, I stood next to my father in the synagogue. He was completely absorbed in the moment, rhythmically, unpretentiously chanting in a barely audible voice. He didn’t miss a phrase, stop for a meditative reading, or enjoy an English text as we were encouraged to do by contemporary rabbis. Nor can it be said that he was praying, for this suggests something that anyone, of any religion, can do. Rather, he davened, swaying back and forth; the words, the order of the service, were in his body as much as in his mind, in his heart as much as in his head.
In our Reconstructionist synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, his davening, his traditional practice, meant he politely ignored the spiritual leaders on the bimah, the raised platform at the front of the synagogue. Or, more in keeping with his respectful yet determined way, he was always just out of sync with the others.
My extended family joined the Society for the Advancement of Judaism because of its progressive social commitments, because, for my mother, religion was all about family not theology, and, if truth be told, because the children required a Jewish education. We sat in the balcony, never on the main floor of the sanctuary, where, with my child’s eyes for social distinctions, I liked to identify the important families, the families that really belonged. Our place at a distance from the bimah, our marginality, was self-imposed. It reflected my father’s ambivalence about leaving matters of belief up to the individual, about reconstructing American Jewish life within the framework of Mordecai Kaplan’s seminal book, “Judaism as a Civilization.”
Even as I recall these scenes from childhood and struggle to reconcile who I was with who I am today, my believing self and my agnostic self, I have come to embrace the new year holiday as a moment when we are called to account. Not a narrative of dates and events that might be extracted from my computer calendar, nor the stories of emotional ups and downs regularly proffered in my therapist’s office. No, the call I hear, issued by the Jewish tradition and filtered through the words of my rabbi, is to account for the ways in which I have become more whole during the year gone by and the attention I need to pay in the year ahead to broken and unresolved connections.
I am filled with ambivalence in the synagogue. I scour every corner of my soul for moments of wrongdoing during the preceding 12 months. The process of enumerating sins, this emptying out, this ethical purging, leaves me dissatisfied. Too many, too few, too late? Or could it be that I don’t like beating myself up, not measuring up, allowing my overbearing superego free rein for days at a time? Being caught in what feels like a cul-de-sac of sin, remorse, and promises to do better is discomforting if not counterproductive to the project of mindful reflection.
Perhaps personal, intentional discomfort is only one aspect of the work to which we commit during the holiday. Jews always strive to pray in community. I tell myself that I go to synagogue because it’s where I belong. I don’t need to know the particular joys and sorrows of the people around me to feel an ineffable sense of connection. We share an opportunity to reflect on the year — to repent, to confess, to ask that previous vows be forgiven, and to be inscribed in the book of life. Together we are caught up in the drama and poetry of these containers provided by the tradition. We fill them with our doubts, remorse, and hopes for the future.
We may arrive at the synagogue alone but our efforts to assess the year do not take place in isolation. We are always in conversation with others, responding to parents, children, friends, and mentors — sometimes living, sometimes not. We are there to care for the self, not in a selfish way, but in way that honors the complicated bonds and interdependencies that make our lives possible.
In the Jewish tradition we are asked to practice the arts of tikkun atzmi, repair of the self, as a way to ensure that we are able to fulfill our commitment to tikkun olam, repair of the world. We cannot care for the world without caring for ourselves. In turn the world cares for us by compelling us to account for ourselves, drawing us into self-consciousness and life with others.
It’s an imperfect, mostly failed process, this giving an account of oneself. There are parts of ourselves that we cannot access and do not know. The best we can do, the only ethical thing to do, is to acknowledge how much we don’t know and to forgive ourselves and others this hiddenness. And how could it be otherwise? For we are changed in the process of giving our account. We have never done it exactly this way, at this time, for this person or that group of people. We will not be the same person at the beginning of Elul as at the end of Yom Kippur.
It’s a risky business too because we may be brought up short, surprised by the questioner and the phrasing of the question. Caught off guard, we may find ourselves at a loss, may lose our way, even as we scramble to formulate a response. But losing our way is sorely underappreciated as a route to learning, and knowing the road ahead is greatly overrated.
We accept the risk because to deny it, to remain silent when hailed in the synagogue or elsewhere, is to deny a relationship. To give an account of oneself is an opportunity to become more whole, more in touch with who we are and therefore with the larger world.
My good friend Therese is fond of reminding me that I have a strong spiritual side. I am less certain but trust her judgment. After all, we worked side by side delivering AIDS care and advocacy during the worst of the epidemic in New York and . . . she goes to Mass every morning. I find that the posture of awe and wonder when considering the not knowing, the hiddenness at the heart of our being is reassuring. When called to account, alternatively defensive and vulnerable, my responses partial and imperfect, I give myself over to the here and now with its provocations, disorientations, and lack of coherence.
It is only in such unsettling moments as these that I imagine we might encounter the transcendent during the High Holidays and every day thereafter.
Jonathan Silin is a member of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons. He lives in Amagansett and Toronto. More about him is at jonathansilin.com.