Taking Off the Mask

Taking Off the Mask

During the long hours of Yom Kippur prayers lastweekend, my friend Sheldon occupied himself by conducting a census ofthe people called to the bimah for ritual honors.

“My tally is 7-2, women to men,” he told me whenwe sat down to break the fast. This is an old game of ours, thepost-holiday auditing of the rabbi’s performance, commentingcaustically about who was chosen to open and close the ark, to do aspecial reading or carry the Torah scrolls. I knew he expected me toengage with him.

This year, I wasn’t playing.

“If it’s true, you’ll get over it,” I said. Imeant more than that Sheldon should relax about feminism — that itis by now a non-issue at least in liberal circles I travel in. I wasthunderstruck by how little counting I had done, how unaware I was ofa whole host of political issues that have preoccupied me during HighHolidays past.

I had not counted women vs. men, nor theproportion of singles to marrieds, whether up on the bimah or packedinto the seats below. I didn’t count the Hollywood celebrities inattendance, the Israelis, the Jews by choice or tradition, theHolocaust survivors vs. the New Agers wearing crystals. I didn’tnotice how many in attendance were synagogue members and how manywere with us because the tickets are ostensibly free. I took nonotice of who was dressed to kill, or who for the beach. A whole dayhad gone by without my playing the traditional role of StanleyGreenberg or George Gallop, taking no pulse of the people.

Nor was I Dick Morris at this year’s service,luxuriating in the thousand wedge issues that divide Jew fromJew.

“The rabbi should have made a stronger stand onsending a financial protest to Netanyahu,” said my friend Gena,assuming that I would rise to the bait. I was not up for protest. Thecontroversies and battles over Israel, conversion, intermarriage, theproportion of Hebrew to English, the great divide betweenspirituality and social action, the times we invoked “Lord” and “He”rather than an sexually neutral God — none of these got past myraider screen. They were all there, of course, an undercurrent ofmurmurs, as usual. But they didn’t get through to me.

I was not Pauline Kael nor Gene Shalit,criticizing the religious show for its theme or structure. Nor was IMichiko Kukatani, commenting on the style and flow of the prayerbook. I was not Martin Bernheimer, critiquing the cantor and choir,and the choice between ancient melodies and Debbie Friedmanriffs.

“Yom Kippur is a freak show,” said my friend Ron.”It’s an overblown circus for the masses.” Let him play theatercritic. Alone.

I brought my usual bag of intellectual tricks,relied upon throughout the decades to divert or entertain me throughthe tedium. I never opened it.

All my life, I have fought against communalworship. I attend. I go through the motions. I stay through to theclosing of the gates, at “Neilah.” Yet I feel myself to be incostume, acting more roles than Laurence Olivier. Sometimes, I am thecultural anthropologist, participating in Judaism as a form ofcomparative religion. Other times, I am a political scientist, takingnotes on how the Jewish people organize for a just cause. Or I becomeFrank Gifford (before the affair!), giving local color for the playby play, pointing out the right page to newcomers. I am the eternalGulliver, a traveler, an observer. I’m DeMille, good at giving stagedirection about the timing of the sermon or Yizkor, standing in thewings. In short, I’m best at dropping in to others’ religiousexperiences, admiring the architecture, the drama. Having none of myown. Feeling cold when I get home.

My “skills” are those of a sophisticate; theyallow me to maintain a distance, keeping the mind alert so the soulcan stay asleep.

Not this year.

Maybe it is because my parents are older and theirdays seem unbearably precious.

Maybe it is because I have so many ill friends,that I forget to name them all during the mi shabearach, the prayerfor healing.

Maybe it is because I am a mother, and the healthygrowth and development of a child brings joy far beyond agarden-variety “thanks.”

Maybe it is because life has etched itsdisappointments into my being.

Maybe it is because as we get old, we getscared.

Maybe it is because, by now, I have real regrets,something that a superficial “I’m sorry” cannot heal. No layer ofsophistication can cloak the pain and joy mere mortals need toshare.

At services last weekend, instead of counting, Ilistened. I heard the prayers of young and old. I heard the cantorwail for my protection. Music crept in where logic and cynicism couldnot go.

Sanctuary is the safe haven where you cling whileshaken to your roots. I sat within the sanctuary, one of the masses,naked without my alternate persona. Just me. All the masks were gone.And I longed for my irony.

Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of TheJewish Journal. Join her for her next “Conversation” at the SkirballCultural Center, on Sunday, Nov. 2, when her guest will be producerLinda Obst, author of “Hello, He Lied.” They will discuss “The Truthabout Hollywood.”

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