Thursday, August 30, 2007 | return to: the column


These High Holy Days, you’ll find me somewhere different

by rachel leibold

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Guess what, Mom and Dad? I'm not going to High Holy Day services this year.

I know what you guys are thinking — oh, God. What a shanda. Those 13 years of Jewish day school, the bat mitzvah, the semester in Israel — wasted. She's not even a two-day-a-year Jew anymore!

But hear me out.

I've lived in the Bay Area for almost two years — that's two sets of High Holy Days. Since I moved here, I've gone to local synagogues for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I wrote a big check, sat in shul and heard the standard liturgy. I sat by myself. I walked to my car by myself.

It was a little lonely, to be honest. And except for one wonderful woman down in San Jose who chatted with me and invited me to Shabbat dinner, no one said word one to the unfamiliar girl in their midst. It's amazing how alone you can feel when surrounded by hundreds of people.

Last year, as I sat in shul, I found myself resenting it a bit. It was a nice service, Conservative, the same thing I've experienced every year for my entire life. Yet I didn't feel anything. I was singing and reading along, but I didn't feel like I was doing it for any reason other than, "Well, I've always done it, might as well do it again this year."

I'm a little ashamed to admit that I started wondering whether I had wasted my money, buying tickets to something I just wasn't into.

This isn't what the High Holy Days are about. I'm supposed to know why I'm there, right? I'm supposed to feel holy, close to God. Instead I just felt bored and close to the air conditioning vent.

By the time Yom Kippur came around, I was seriously considering skipping shul and going camping. I daydreamed about getting up at dawn on Yom Kippur morning, hiking to the top of a mountain (well, maybe just a big hill) and meditating on God and life and Torah and all manner of spiritual goodness. Like Elijah, only (hopefully) without the earthquake.

But at the last minute, I chickened out. I didn't want to rock the boat of tradition. So I went to shul, fasted, the whole deal. And yet again, I wondered why I was there.

So this year, I'm doing something different. I'm going to have my own service.

In the hours I would be in shul, I'm going to read Jewish stories and poetry, study Tanach — maybe even start with Elijah-on-the-mountain — and prayers. I've been inspired by my new book, Rabbi Jill Hammer's "The Jewish Book of Days," to learn more about earth-based Jewish traditions, so I'm going to do that, too.

Instead of chanting a long list of sins I may or may not have committed, I'll be able to actually think about those sins and meditate on them, without having to hurry on with the service. Instead of reading the same responsive passages I do every year, I'll be able to read things that are new and different.

I know that the concept of skipping synagogue on the holiest days of the year might sound horrifying to some of you.

I know what the argument is — isn't Judaism all about being with a community? If we all stayed home and studied by ourselves on the High Holy Days, wouldn't there be no synagogues, no klal, no anything? No man is an island, and so on?

Well — yes.

But I don't plan on doing this forever. I want to go back to services eventually, and maybe teach some of the things I've learned to people who also feel alienated. And maybe next time I'll feel something, instead of just feeling obligated.

I'm a little nervous. This is definitely going to be weird.

It's not quite going to be the High Holy Days without that long walk from the satellite parking lot to shul, hearing the blasts of the shofar and the repetitions of the "Hineni."

Maybe I'll hate it. I don't know. But in the end, it's only one year. If I'm miserable and lost and missing my usual High Holy Days, well, it's only another 12 moons 'til the next one.

Rachel Freedenberg lives in Burlingame and is a copy editor at j. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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