I Miss The Way Yom Kippur Used to Be

To find myself nostalgic about Yom Kippur is an unanticipated phenomenon, like so much else these days.

I’ve spent a lot of time fantasizing this year. I sat at my kitchen table, the house so quiet I could hear the hiss of seltzer bubbles in my glass as they rose and popped, and thought of all the things outside of my reach. A real, physical cheers, instead of raising your glasses at a distance and saying “clink” with a sad laugh. Crawling inside a blanket fort with my niece. I’ve missed concerts, parties, bars. Oh, and Yom Kippur.

Picture it.

Padding up the carpeted stairs into the sanctuary. You’re late, and nervously scan the crowd for friendly faces. Yes, there are shul cliques, so choose carefully. You spend the day cycling between thoughts of transcendence and food nostalgia. You haven’t had it in years, but doesn’t a Cosi flatbread pizza sound amazing? You beat your chest with your fist, wondering if you’re hitting too hard, or maybe not hard enough. The rabbi’s sermon starts off with a joke about Jews and their world-class complaining, and a hearty chuckle rises from the pews (but honestly, it could be cooler in here). In the middle of the day, you sneak out and spend a few hours at home. You slip pajama pants on over your stockings and crawl into bed, hoping to hit fast forward and skip a few hours of this 25-hour atonement-fest.

You return to synagogue, where people are lining up to have a moment alone or with their family in front of the ark. The rabbi is calling sections of the sanctuary to line up like a bar mitzvah buffet, and as people return to their seats they stop and schmooze. There is a cricket-like thrum of chatter orchestrating the operatic evening prayers. Toward the end, the energy shifts, hundreds of people tunneling through their hunger in search of a holier emotion.

Children are invited up to the bimah for havdalah, glow sticks wave, shofars sound, and you race to break the fast. In a house a few blocks away, you take a sip of cool orange juice. You feel it run through your veins. You grab a bagel, you are absolved, you schmear the cream cheese, you are forgiven.

Some call it the happiest, holiest day of the year, and it’s true there is a soft beauty, like moss on a boulder, climbing over the somber ritual. Two Yom Kippurs ago, a boy the same age as my older brother stood on the bimah before the haftara reading. My fourth grade teacher, sitting in the row in front of me, whispered to her husband, “That’s the one who wore shorts in the winter.” The rabbi explained that, for decades, the boy’s grandfather had read the Yom Kippur haftara each year. In recent years, he and the boy had done it together. That year, the boy’s grandfather had passed away. Despite his absence, with the boy standing alone before the pulpit, he was certain we would hear his grandfather chanting with him. There wasn’t a sound in the sanctuary as the boy’s voice, thin at first, swelled to fill it.

One root of my nostalgia may be the physicality of it all. Sitting in a room with hundreds of others, shaking hands and hugging, receiving kisses on the cheek. It feels antiquated now, like salutation rites from the pages of fables. Before the Torah reading, the rabbis walk the scrolls around the sanctuary, and those in the aisle seats reach out with their prayer books, press them to the Torah and then kiss them. Often they’ll touch their book to their neighbors’, each giving the book a kiss before touching it to that of the person next to them, sanctifying each pair of lips along the way.

I miss the days before contagion took hold of our minds, when we believed we could bolster one another’s piety, when a touch was an act of generosity.

The premise upon which the holiday is founded is that on one day a year, we atone for our sins and ask God for forgiveness. Those who achieve absolution are inscribed in the Book of Life. Those who fail to atone are inscribed into the Book of Death. As a child, I imagined that sinners’ had their punishments meted out in real time and that, if they were present, they would drop like flies at sunset. I would scan the congregation at the holiday’s end, see everybody still on their feet, and think, We did it! We must all be good!

On Yom Kippur, we exist as a collective. We read words in unison, we bear our burdens, our stomachs grumble, our feet hurt. Fasting is a choice taken by some, and creates a state of false deprival. Yes, you wish you could sneak into the children’s service and steal grape juice and a cookie, but you know that, by tomorrow, that need will evaporate. Craving stale cookies for a day starts to seem like a sport. You’re like a teenager crushing a magazine photo of a heartthrob to your chest, because longing is so painful, but isn’t it, under the right circumstances, kind of fun? My mother always says breakfast on the morning after Yom Kippur is the best meal of the year, the best cup of coffee, the best piece of toast. On that morning we feel lucky. Our gratitude is gone by dinner.

On Yom Kippur we cut slack for one another by the yard. When someone steals your parking spot you can say “they’re probably just hungry.” When you criticize the cantor (what does he think this is, “The Lion King”?) and your mother raises her voice at you in response, she cuts herself off with “I think I just need caffeine.” We shelter under a universal excuse, and beneath its umbrella, we are kinder.

This year, I’m grateful for the masks worn and distances kept, but I miss how it used to be. Under normal circumstances, Yom Kippur is something I endure. To find myself dreaming of it is an unanticipated phenomenon, like so much else these days.

Last year I was on my deck with my family, the rabbi on Zoom, birdsong accompanying Kol Nidre. This year I’ll be back in shul, masked and distanced, but I’ll still be yearning. I’ll be remembering the Neilahs of my childhood, before I wondered about complicity, before the synagogues around me threw up “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” signs and checked it off as solidarity. Before a virus gave us numbers on how many people would put themselves before the collective, before I struggled to feel safe.

I’ll be missing the moment when the book of life slammed shut, my whole world tucked inside it. Before I realized that just because everyone’s still standing at the end doesn’t mean that everyone is good.

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