The key to understanding me and Yom Kippur is that I have no real understanding of Yom Kippur. More of a flavor. My role, as Woody Allen defines it, falls into the “90% of life is showing up” rule. Which, at such times, is all that I know to do. So, let us waltz through the Jewish ceremonial space for those who, like me, have no Jewish background. And see what we find. Or what finds us. This is the thing with matters spiritual. Pretty much a hide and seek game.
The sun sets every night, or to be more precise, the earth rotates out of range of the sun’s rays, creating the illusion of sundown – and the start of the Yom Kippur fast. Note that in the past I have quite…well, religiously…followed the basic rule. Which is that fasting involves not eating. Indeed, this is the trick. You want to fast, don’t eat. You want to eat, forget Yom Kippur…that is the implication. This year found me in some strange stage with the holiday’s approach. Which, accidentally, may be where one is supposed to be. The Days of Awe, all 10 of them between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur’s. A process of introspecting, assessing and reconfiguring – such is my take on the thing. And damned if this year did not find me deeply enmeshed in reexperiencing of my 1968 shooting, violent thoughts of revenge, loose and unformed wishes for justice, even peace. Which translates on an experiential level to not sleeping, coming down with a psychogenic cold, and now…fasting? Something told me that the last 10 days had been sufficiently fraught without a further physiological load. I awoke on Yom Kippur morning and had a bowl of bran cereal, thank you very much.
In short, there was a Frank Sinatra do-it-my-way thing going on, versus an inferiority-in-the-face-of-group-pressure thing. And I had already had my breakfast, fast be damned, and now there was the matter of attire. Lorna, the assistant of the day, is better versed in matters of Filipina Catholicism than what to wear to Yom Kippur services. Nevertheless, one makes use of available resources, and there she was helping me find something dark and sober that did not involve a tie. The cognoscenti in my Palo Alto congregation wear white on…wasn’t it Rosh Hashanah? Or was it Yom Kippur? Or both?
Like a high school kid wanting to fit in on the first day, I really would like to be attired properly. But this just isn’t possible. I really don’t recall who wore white when…why being another dimension, although it seems to have something to do with death shrouds and a symbol of funereal rebirth. Is that right? Or do I have this wrong? In any case, I do not have a white outfit. I don’t play cricket. Or golf. The attire of the sprightly quadriplegic, sportif wear for the paralyzed, being something of a stretch. But only a stretch, not beyond reaching for. That is the point these days. And why it is the point I don’t know…except that I do. Leisure wear for the quadriplegic is fine…unfamiliar to me so far, but fine. And something tells me that Yom Kippur being, well, serious, I should look serious. I put on gray trousers and a navy blue pullover, gray sports jacket. And after my morning constitutional, liming up and down the footpath arm-in-arm with Lorna, I am off.
Services are packed. That is the thing about Yom Kippur. Anyone in the orbital pull of things Jewish feels a strong tug. This is the one day you turn up. And so many Jews have turned up at my congregation that I don’t recognize the place. Good thing I signed up early to read a Torah passage, in English, of course. Problem is, I can’t figure out how to get up on the stage of the Jewish Community Center. And things are moving along rather smartly. After all, we have just read to ourselves, then read aloud, that long list of bad things I, or we, have done in the last year. It’s quite a list. Comprehensive, not to mention exhaustive, but never mind, for I am very worried about how to get up on the stage. Thing is, one of the ushers says the route leads through the door marked exit. I see a very suspicious looking wheelchair lift stage left. As soon as the Torah procession starts, I get frantic, approach another usher, demand to see the route up to the bema. The usher leads me through the kitchen, we hang a right, and sure enough, there it is, a ramp to the stage. Now the problem is that I am here too early. Which raises essential questions about how out of it I really am. Why do I even pretend to be a Jew when I can’t even turn up for my modest contribution to the service at the appropriate time? I try to quiet these fears. Soon it will be over.
The passage from Deuteronomy made absolutely no sense when I read it at home, but now with the collective experience, the words go into the microphone, out to the congregation and back into my brain, heightened and clarified. This is all about being left alone, left behind, and God…some positive, protective, renewing part of the life experience…wants us home. Right on. I want to be home myself. Reading concluded, I roll my wheelchair past the rabbi and fellow readers, a couple who just did the aliyah, the blessing. But they are occupied, talking to each other, so I scoot out. Normally, there is a pleasant handshake, a congratulatory moment, all warmth and recognition and belonging. But this is too awkward, the insiders talking to each other. I head back down the ramp, through the kitchen and out to the house.
But Joyce, one of my fellow readers, follows me. She didn’t get a chance to shake my hand, she says. Joyce shakes it now. Why was I in such a hurry? Included. I am included. Even wanted. And it is beginning to settle in, this knowledge. Even later that evening when sated by all the food at a break-the-fast celebration, I return home and find that I cannot get my trousers unbuttoned. It is so embarrassing, how portly I am becoming in middle age. No, Jane tells me, eyes steady, there is no need to be embarrassed. She loves me. It’s that simple, she says. And I try hard to listen to these words, to absorb them. For this part isn’t simple. In fact, it is exhausting. But I do have the feeling that tonight I will get a good sleep.