Embrace the Day, Invite the ‘Stranger’

My earliest High Holiday memory goes back to about age 7. It was the night before Yom Kippur and my parents had gone off to the synagogue, leaving my 10-year-old brother and me with a babysitter. I forgot that I wasn’t supposed to eat anything that night, went into the kitchen, got on a chair to get a banana from the top of the refrigerator, peeled it halfway down and put it into my mouth.

My brother shouted, "You can’t do that!"

Then I remembered, wrapped the banana back in its peel and put it back on top of the refrigerator. I don’t know what my mother thought when she discovered that banana, she never said anything about it. But I think that from then on I felt that Yom Kippur was something very important.

When I was 12 I won an essay contest at my Conservative synagogue by writing that my favorite Jewish holiday was … Yom Kippur. Although my choice was one calculated to win, I had in fact begun to enjoy the High Holidays. Something about the period of self-evaluation and striving to return to right behavior (my understanding of teshuvah), appealed deeply to me. So did self-affliction — I wanted to fast before my mother would let me (she made me wait until I was 13).

My strong positive feelings about the High Holidays have continued unabated throughout the 30 years of my interfaith marriage. When Wendy and I were dating, she was always willing to attend services with me. For a number of years we went to the Harvard Hillel services. In those days the services were held in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, a not very comfortable or synagogue-like setting, but we were attracted by Rabbi Gold, an Orthodox rabbi whom we had consulted before our wedding. He had treated Wendy kindly and respectfully when he advised her not to convert before we were married unless it was something that she wanted for herself.

After we bought a house in the suburbs, we joined our neighborhood Reform synagogue when our daughter was ready for religious school. At some point when our children were very young, we developed our own High Holiday custom. Traditional Jews observe tashlich on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah — they go to a body of moving water and throw bread or stones into it, as a symbolic casting away of sins. I had never performed that ritual before, but somehow we got started going to a neighborhood park on Yom Kippur afternoon and throwing bread into the Charles River — though most of the bread was intercepted by hungry ducks before it even hit the water. We have clung to that custom "religiously" and every Yom Kippur afternoon, dressed in our finest suits and dresses (which must look very curious to the families playing in the park), we feed the ducks/cast away our sins. My children, who are now 21 and 26, still insist that, as the person with most of the sins, I should throw in most of the bread.

For Wendy and me, Judaism is very much a matter of religion. We have experienced so many High Holidays at this point that the rituals and customs of the holidays are familiar and comfortable to us as a couple. On Yom Kippur, the Kol Nidre melody reminds us of all of those past years. We both fast and return to the synagogue for the afternoon Yizkor memorial and concluding services. We enjoy the opportunity for an extended quiet time of reflection. Each year I hate to see the day’s"’time-out" from daily routines come to an end.

I think that our attitudes toward the High Holidays have rubbed off on our children. Several years ago, our daughter, Emily, spent a fall semester in New Zealand. She had to make a major effort to be in a synagogue for Yom Kippur — take a bus from the conservation project she was working on into Auckland, check into a youth hostel, have pizza for dinner alone and then make her way to the Progressive synagogue to attend services. In a wonderful example of Jews taking care of other Jews, she was befriended by a couple who invited her to their home to break the fast and to stay the night; it turned out that one of the couple’s children had been married by the rabbi of our own synagogue! When our son, Adam, was in Munich last fall, he, too, made his way to the Progressive synagogue, and was taken in by a young family.

The Torah and haftorah portions on Yom Kippur morning year after year are, for me, the most inspiring expressions of Jewish values — from the Torah portion’s command to "choose life" to the haftorah portion’s command "to unlock the shackles of injustice … to share your bread with the hungry."

And these readings have an interfaith theme — in Deuteronomy 29:9-14, 30:11-20, Moses says that those who are about to enter into God’s covenant and be established as a people include everyone in the community, even the "strangers in your camp." I experience the themes of the liturgy of the day — which emphasize the Day of Judgment, self-evaluation and repentance, seeking forgiveness, ethical behavior and taking advantage of a new beginning — as applying fully to Wendy. When the congregation prays communally for repentance, I experience her as a member of the congregation and community.

For me, the High Holidays, and Yom Kippur in particular, are a great gift — a gift that interfaith families can benefit from and fully enjoy.

Edmund C. Case is the president and publisher of
InterfaithFamily.com and the co-editor, with Ronnie Friedland, of “The
Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life: An InterfaithFamily.com Handbook”
(Jewish Lights).

Relationships with God

When John and I married, our invitation featured a verse from this week’s Haftorah (Isaiah 61:10-63:9): Yasis alayich Elochayich kimsos chatan al kalah, rendered freely as “Come join in the sanctification of our joy”; literally, “As a bridegroom rejoices in a bride, so your God will rejoice in you” (Isaiah 62:5). This verse became a favorite years ago when its daring, electric comparison hit me: Human love provides the standard for God’s love of the Jewish people. Instead of urging human lovers toward heaven, we Jews cannot imagine any-thing more deeply, joy-ously loving than what committed human part-ners feel for each other. We envision God learning love from human lovers.

Whether God is the bridegroom or the bride, I invite you to pause and summon a feeling of being loved in that way by God. Holding this feeling close offers an important preparation for the High Holy Days, which always follow upon this haf-tarah. Experiencing ourselves as God’s partner in a marriage-like covenantal relationship can provide the stamina and courage to acknowledge sins without being devastated in the process. Of course, we also address God as “Avinu Mal-keinu,” invoking parental protection and nurturing. But I for one do better with a model of spiritual caring that leaves me in an adult role and that stresses intimacy, even passion. So there we are, God and I, encountering one another one-on-one in a manner that parallels my marriage.

Apart from closeness to God, we all exist within our own skins, each with thoughts and feelings that no other person understands or even knows about. Yet if we are fortunate, we also live enmeshed in relationship – within concen-tric circles of connection and of meaning. The union of two may expand to include children or others, so that we fit within a household and an extended family. We belong to profes-sional networks and are American citizens or residents; depending on our degree of involvement, we draw strength and meaning from those identifications.

Belonging to the Jewish people is like being a member of the American Bar Associa-tion, the Goldberg family or the United States. But there are also differences – differences that make our identities as Jews more pervasive, more endur-ingly meaningful and better capable of providing an overall framework for our lives. We rejoice, learn and are sustained within a circle that is larger than our family, more holistic than our profession, and more concretely embedded than our nation. Being Jewish trans-cends time and space, stretching the boundaries of our individu-al lives and rendering us, in some sense, eternal.

“You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God – your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, each person of Israel, your children, your wives [husbands], even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer – to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God… I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”

So begins Parshat Nitzavim, the first of this week’s double portion. Written thousands of years ago, it reaches across the centuries to grab us in Septem-ber 2000 in Southern California. It speaks to me – whom good fortune has embedded within a loving marriage and family, university and rabbinic net-works, and democratic civic structures – inviting me into the grand, eternal circle of Jewish life. Grand and eternal, yes; but also charged with the intimacy, immediacy and joy experienced by Isaiah’s bride and groom. Torah and haftarah, Jewish people and Adonai – these join to sustain and enlarge me as I move towards Rosh Hashanah. May you, I, our people and all the world be inscribed for a good New Year.

Susan Laemmle is dean of religious life at the University of Southern California.