A Secular Girl In a Religious World

I took my wayfaring ways a little more seriously this week in honor of Yom Kippur, one of the “biggie” holidays in the eyes of the Jewish people. After an entire year of sins and wrongdoings, the Jews believe in one day each year where we can ask for God’s forgiveness and atonement. What can I say, we’re a practical people.

Here’s the deal. At sundown on the eve of Yom Kippur, Jews scarf down a mass amount of food, which is actually a mitzvah (good deed) in Judaism. Then we begin a 24-hour fast where we abstain from eating and drinking. To make things a little more interesting, religious Jews will discontinue the use of anything that “makes” something. For example, musical instruments make music and writing on paper makes something to read so both playing music and writing are forbidden. More importantly, we’re ordered to conclude the use of electricity. This means no lights, cars, phones, stoves, cameras…the list goes on and on. Which brings me back to my thought about taking a literal meaning of Wayfaring Miss this week. Traveling by foot was the name of the game. You’ll also notice I kept Yom Kippur by not adding any pictures to my post (don’t worry mom, there will be more next week).

I figured if I were going to commit to keeping a traditional Yom Kippur at any time in my life, being in Israel would be the best place to do it. Arrangements were made for me to stay at a friend’s apartment with her and her husband. After a 45-minute walk to their house for our pre-fast meal, I slowly began to realize that there was really no turning back––buses and cabs were nowhere to be seen.

At 6:12 PM, the gorge fest halted and we prepared for our walk to the schul (synagogue). Quiet had overtaken the city, and all of Israel, that night. As we walked to services, hoards of kids took to the streets on bikes, scooters and pretty much anything else with wheels. With literally no motorized vehicles on the roads as a result of the holiday, the city became a complete free for all. My hosts and I even took part in the fun by laying prostrate on one of the busiest roads in Be’er Sheva unafraid of cars or trucks potentially making a potato pancake out of us.

We arrived at a small, unassuming building where men, women and children dressed in white (a symbol of purity) gathered for one of the most important nights of prayer in the Jewish year. I followed my host into the building where we divided by gender through two different doors leading into a partitioned sanctuary. Through the opaque white cotton divider, the women’s side offered a muddled view into the men’s side where the rabbi stood and torah was stored.

My first time in a traditional schul was a mixed bag of emotions. On one hand, it was nice to be surrounded by the strong women and mothers that I could relate to on a number of levels. Yet the other part of me, the “feminist”, asked why the shitty view? In the shortest explanation possible, women are divided from the men to avoid any “distractions” that might fall upon the members of the opposite sex during prayer. In my opinion, I could do without the separation but it was definitely less disturbing than I thought it would be.

What was disturbing? The amount of Crocs, flip-flops and sneakers I saw on the feet of the women who were attending prayer. Seeing the combination of skirts, dress shirts and these over-the-top casual shoes made me say to myself, “Ladies, we can do better than this!” The funny thing is, what I thought was a major fashion catastrophe actually turned out to be another traditional rule Jews follow on Yom Kippur. Originally, the Torah commanded Jews to go barefoot on this holy day, but after seeing the state of Israeli roads, I understand why we found a way around this one. Instead of going shoeless, Jews wear “non-shoes” like ones with rubber soles instead of leather.

I sat through services that night with an open heart and an open mind. Although everything was in Hebrew, I was able to follow along in an English service book (yes, the Yom Kippur service has its own book). I went to bed that night without a single screen in front of me which is, embarrassingly enough, a first for me. The next morning I woke up late trying to avoid my morning hunger pangs and walked to schul for another round of prayers. The gist of the service centered on acknowledgement of sin in the last year, repentance, and praising God for his acceptance and forgiveness.

My connection to the service was one of understanding and interest. It felt more like I was paying attention in class than participating in an actual religious act, and I am fine with that. I didn’t expect to be completely entranced by the religious prayers that have been said for thousands of years, but I did feel a sense of absolute appreciation.

What struck me the most were the prayers that mentioned Jerusalem and Israel. At first glance, it seemed like customary prayers that reference the important land that exists for Jews today. The key word there is today. Think about it. These prayers are the same ones that have been said for centuries which means the declaration of Israel was realized thousands of years before it actually existed. It’s eerily fascinating that I am now living in a state that my great-grandparents and their parents prayed would one day exist. Lucky doesn’t begin to describe how it feels.

In last moments of Yom Kippur before the praying is over and the fast is broken, Jews congregate for one final push, the grand finale of a day full of repentance and pleas. We ask God one last time to consider writing our name in the Book of Life and to put his seal on another year of good health and fortune. With the schul filled with the entire congregation, sorrow, happiness, exhaustion and hunger vibrated off the walls and into my bewildered, water-deprived soul. It was an incredible experience to be a part of something so special in the eyes of these devout, religious Jews. The shofar (ram’s horn) sounded at the conclusion of the service and with a renewed strength, we loudly proclaimed one last traditional blessing.“To next year in Jerusalem!” It’s said in hopes that we will physically be in the proximity of the holy land next year, but the prayer also signifies an ideal we all struggle to reach every year: peace with the world and ourselves.

Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday)!