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Ellis Weiner

Ellis Weiner

Posted: September 9, 2010 05:51 PM

Happy-ish New Year

What's Your Reaction:

Is it 5771 already? Well, look, time flies when you're having a great culture.

The arrival of the High Holy Days makes every Jew, across the entire spectrum from secular to frum (Yid., pious, observant), get a little more self-conscious and reflective. But what are they reflecting on?

My wife and co-author, Barbara Davilman, posted on HARO (Help A Reporter Out) a request from writers for memories of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Here's her report.

As someone who hates to be told what to do, and where and when to do it, I never really got along with organized religion. (I gave a "why I hate Hebrew school" speech at confirmation.)

But I've discovered, over the years, that being Jewish can be just as much a cultural practice as a religious one. So, although I no longer go to temple (not even on the High Holy Days), and I don't go to anyone's house for seder on Passover (unless I'm guilted into it), I am a cultural Jew. This means that my hair will always be the bane of my existence (don't start with me with the Brazilian Blowout), I'll always plan my day around food, and give directions using restaurants. If I feel pain anywhere in my body, I'll jump right to "it's cancer," but refuse to go to the doctor.

It also accounts for how I'm pretty good at hondling (bargaining, negotiating), I deflect compliments people give me, and I worry excessively--about my dogs, yes, but only because I don't have any children. (All these, and more, are explained and illustrated in The Big Jewish Book for Jews, which is the last book you--or at least, I--would have expected me to co-write.)

And I know I'm not alone. I see more and more people listing, under their Facebook category of Religious Views, the generic description "spiritual." When I posted my HARO request for memories of High Holy Days gone by, many of the replies had nothing to do with God, renewal, or atonement. No, they concerned food, clothes, and parentally-induced trauma. Like these:

"My earliest recollections of the High Holy Days was my Grandma making her own gefilte fish," writes Margo Rappel. "I came home from school and found carp and other live fish swimming in her bath tub."

Similarly, Lisa Flicop remembers meeting her boyfriend's (and now husband's) extended family for the first time and being confronted with Aunt Sylvia's gefilte fish. "While I am typically an adventurous eater, gefilte fish was just one of those foods that I prefer not to be within smelling distance." Still, "I went for it. I made sure I had plenty of horseradish and wine to wash it down with. I ate the fish, but by then I had had too much wine..."

Jodi Lyons took time out from preparing knishes to recall herself "as a little girl cooking for a huge extended family--with three generations of women preparing recipes handed down from generation to generation."

But it wasn't all gefilte fish and pot roast.

Sarah Lefton remembers "being in my pissed-off teenager phase one Yom Kippur. INXS was playing a concert at the Coliseum the night of Kol Nidre (the sacred prayer sung three times on the evening before the day of Yom Kippur). Being in Columbia, SC, you don't necessarily get a lot of the big shows and I was kind of infatuated with Michael Hutchence at the time. The fight over whether I could go was a major knock-down, drag-out teenage power play with my parents, and I lost. It wasn't pretty."

Compare and contrast Audrey RL Wyatt's, "When I was a rebellious teen I refused to go to Temple on Yom Kippur to say Yiskor (the commemorative prayer for the dead) for my father. It's not that I didn't want to pray for my dad, I was rebelling against my mother's determination that everyone see me do it."

The beautiful, touching memories continue as Devra Renner remembers, "I recall as a kid my mother would become so shrecked (terrible, fearful, monstrous) at the thought of being late to Kol Nidre, she would become a lunatic about getting to the synagogue. The irony of fighting like mad with my mother about getting ready to leave, and then going to listen to Kol Nidre service where we prepare to confess our sins and forgive one another was akin to downing a case of Manischevitz and then attending an AA meeting."

The frantic mothers, the gefilte fish--yes, but what about the clothes? Andrea Levine writes, "Having grown up and gone to High Holiday services at a conservative shul in Ventnor, NJ, Beth Judah, I will say that I spent most of the year, beginning the day after Yom Kippur, looking for the most amazing outfit, shoes, and bag, along with suit or dress and jewelry, to wear the following year. We went to services partly to see and be seen!!!...That is really the essence of the High Holy Days for me as a child."

This pales, though, before the epic tale of Suzanne Wexler. "When I was a kid, my mom--a converted shixsa (sic) with blond hair and a southern drawl--would have me and my sister Alana model our synagogue best, from orange gingham jumpers to plaid blue kilts with white turtle necks, weeks before the Jewish high-holidays...

"I assumed that mommy was so obsessed with us looking 'appropriate' because she looked and sounded so different from the other women at our modern Orthodox shul...in Montreal, where the congregation just stopped short of traditions like top hats and wigs."

And it was not enough that the two little girls be dressed to kill. They had to wear identical outfits.
"'I don't want to look like her,'" my sister would shriek...But mom said that when Alana and I matched from head to toe--sigh!--we were absolutely to die for."

Suzanne and her sister theorized that Yom Kippur--go know what this had to do with "atonement"--was the setting for some sort of fashion competition, the winners to be judged by "the rabbi and his men" in secret, its results to remain classified.

It wasn't until the girls grew up, and Alana had two daughters of her own, that Suzanne learned the reason for their mother's fancy-shmancy, matchy-matchy wardrobe instructions. Why had her mother been so avid about making the girls look like twins?

"'Oh, you two were my sweet little baby dolls,' she replied, her southern accent suddenly resurrected. 'I wanted you to look just like the ones I played with growing up named Trixie and Lulubelle.'" Hence their "extreme Christian makeover."

"We thought she wanted us to triumph among all Jewesses," Suzanne writes. "In fact, she was way more interested in making us stick out like two proud goyim, dressed in high-collar necklines and spanking new saddle shoes...We'd been wafting into synagogue wearing our Southern Baptist best..."

A mixed marriage (to a wife who converted) might also account for the way Rich Hollenburg's six-year-old son Jason mimics his father at prayer, reciting, "Baruch atah Illinois..."

Inspiring, no? Well, no. But imbued with the importance of family and tradition (of one kind or another), which is an essential aspect of Judaism both religious and secular. What are some of your High Holy Day memories? Even if they're not about food, clothes, or mothers.

B.D.