High Holy Days: Sticking to our labels

Is it possible to be religiously not religious? That question came to me the other day when I asked a friend what his synagogue plans were for the coming Holy Days.

“Neilah,” he answered, referring to the last prayer of Yom Kippur.

“That’s it?” I asked. “Anything else? What about Rosh Hashanah?”

“No, just Neilah,” he replied firmly. “That’s what I do every year.”

What struck me about his response was his level of certitude. He might attend only one prayer service a year, but he’d never miss it for the world. He’s passionately loyal to this tradition. 

You might say it’s his religious label: He’s a “Neilah-Every-Year” Jew.

His commitment to this label is no less than that of my observant friends who might attend services 500 times a year at one synagogue, or my less observant friends who might pray three times a year at one temple. The numbers might differ, but they’re all pretty much fixed. 

We all have a tendency to attach ourselves to labels and habits, for which we develop an almost religious devotion, no matter how “religious” we are.

I have friends, for example, who will always build a sukkah to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, and others who will never build one. One day, I might have the chutzpah to ask those who never build a sukkah whether they ever get the itch to do so. My theory is that even if they do, they would dismiss it.

Why? Because it wouldn’t fit their label: “It’s not what we do.”

There are many good reasons to embrace labels and habits. They give us an identity, make us feel secure, provide us with structure.

They also prevent us from feeling like hypocrites.

My friend Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz of the Chai Center once told me that “the fear of hypocrisy” is one of the biggest obstacles to the practice of Jewish rituals. 

What he meant was: A woman might feel the urge to light the Shabbat candles one Friday night, but knowing that she probably won’t do it the following week makes her feel like a hypocrite. So, that’s reason enough to pass on the mitzvah.

In other words, if lighting the Shabbat candles is “not what I do,” won’t I feel like a flake or a hypocrite if I just do it whenever I feel like it?

And if building a sukkah is “not what I do,” won’t I feel like a hypocrite if I do it this year but not the next?

With the passage of time, habits and labels have a way of owning us.

Even breaking a habit can become a habit.

For the past few years, I have been alternating my High Holy Days services between Sephardi and Ashkenazi minyans on Pico Boulevard. I do morning services Sephardic-style at Congregation Mogen David, and I do the Musaf prayer Ashkenazic-style a few blocks away at Young Israel of Century City.

This “breaking up” habit started because I have friends in both places, and I enjoy both services. Sephardi davening is what I was raised with — the chanting is more intense, more from the gut. The Ashkenazi service is beautiful as well, more melodic and introspective. They both move me in different ways.

This year, I realized that this alternating approach has become a tradition. I didn’t question it. It’s now “what I do.”

I wonder sometimes whether I’m confusing my kids — whether I should just commit to one synagogue or community and stick with it. But I also want them to experience the vibrancy of the Jewish tradition, and thank God there’s plenty of it in Pico-Robertson.

It’s one of the dilemmas of the modern Jewish experience. After nearly two millennia of living in mostly isolated enclaves, Jews of all colors, customs and traditions are finding themselves next to one another, sometimes in the same neighborhood.

This commingling is challenging our force of habit. Should we stick to our traditions or should we be open to sampling new ones?

If my tradition is to daven a certain way, or observe only certain rituals, how can I justify changing it? Why go against my own tradition?

I know that davening and shul memberships are personal things, which complicates any notion of communal “shul hopping.” 

But I do have an easier answer for the dilemma of “mitzvah hopping.”

If you have labeled yourself as someone who “doesn’t do” certain rituals, don’t worry about feeling like a flake or a hypocrite if you get the urge to do them only occasionally. 

As Rabbi Schwartz elegantly explains, “God counts only the mitzvahs you do, not the ones you don’t.”

Even if it’s only reciting a prayer on Yom Kippur, or building a little hut on Sukkot.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com

Teens, fasting and fainting

The minutes of Yom Kippur are ticking off the clock. Your knees are weak from standing for all of the Neilah service and your stomach begins to growl — you’ve been fasting all day and your body wants food, needs food. You tell yourself, “I can go without food another hour. I always feel faint when I fast, and, besides, the gates of repentance are closing.”

But next thing you know, you’re hard on the floor, stiff as a board with several doctors above you, one checking your pulse, one feeling your forehead, one telling you to wake up, wake up.

That’s what happened last Yom Kippur to Yael Rabin, now a sophomore at Shalhevet, who fainted half an hour into a 90-minute Neilah at Congregation B’nai David-Judea. She was feeling fine until suddenly she felt dizzy, blacked out and then woke up on the floor like it had all been a dream — except that she was in throbbing pain all over her body.

“When I woke up, it was like someone had hit me with a wooden board several times,” Yael said. Witnesses said she fell straight down and hit the floor so hard that services were stopped for several minutes.

Numerous doctors surrounded her and paramedics were called, and Yael and her family ended the holiday in the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

“It was really hard the first few days” of recovery, Yael said. “There was so much pain everywhere, especially my neck.”

Yael suffered from whiplash and a mild concussion. She couldn’t walk and had to wear a neck brace for more than a week after. She couldn’t play sports or participate in PE for the next few months.

Yael didn’t feel any symptoms until it was too late, but if she had, she would have had Jewish law on her side in breaking her fast.

“In Yael’s case, the fainting should have been avoided by breaking her fast because of the long-term health consequences that resulted when she didn’t,” said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Bnai David-Judea, where two congregants fainted on Yom Kippur last year. Kanefsky advises at first eating small amounts that don’t technically count as eating in Jewish law — less than a cheekful of liquid and a kezayit (about the size of a cracker) every eight minutes. If that does not help, then one should fully break the fast.

From a medical standpoint, it turns out that the particular circumstances of Neilah, the closing service of Yom Kippur, add up to a kind of formula for fainting. According to Dr. Laurel Schramm, Yael’s doctor and a pediatrician in Beverly Hills, dehydration coupled with extensive standing makes fainting all the more likely.

When teenagers faint it’s usually because they’re dehydrated, Schramm explained. Fasting contributes to dehydration, meaning that the body doesn’t have enough fluid to send oxygen to the brain. A decrease in blood to the brain can cause loss of consciousness, or fainting.

Standing still for a long time makes matters worse by putting stress on the legs, causing blood to stay there and away from your head, she explained.

“When you’re standing still, gravity pulls the blood down, and there’s no muscle movement in your legs, no massaging the blood back up your body,” said Schramm, who is Orthodox and fasts on Yom Kippur herself.

Coming at the culmination of a fast that started before sunset the night before, Neilah is the final, parting, pleading prayer when many Jews feel more connected to God than possibly any other time of the year. Maybe that intensity leads to fainting, too.

While shortening Neilah or abolishing fasting might seem like tempting solutions, that might ruin the emotional and spiritual impact of the day.

“Were it not for the fasting,” Kanefsky said, “people wouldn’t take the day half as seriously as they do. There would be no aura and sense of urgency around the day that exists now.”

But, Kanefsky said, it is unnecessary to stand throughout Neilah while the ark is open.

“A common misconception is that standing is required when the Ark is open,” Kanefsky explained. “In fact, one only has to stand when the Torah is moving, for example, when the Torah is being lifted after Torah reading.”

Kanefsky usually announces this before Neilah every year, and he makes clear that anyone who feels that his health is in danger should eat the minimum quantities and can still feel he is following the law.

But if those things don’t help, it’s important to stay aware of the symptoms. If you suddenly feel cold and sweaty, or if you get dizzy and think you may faint, you should lie down immediately on the floor and raise your feet above your head, Schramm said.

Yael plans on fasting again this year, but she has a new awareness.

“If you feel sick, listen to what your body is telling you,” she said. “God doesn’t want you to get hurt.”

Louis Keene is a senior at Shalhevet and on the staff of the Boiling Point, where this article first appeared.