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High Holiday Feature: Reflecting on Personal Travails of Attending New Year Services

Looking back on 20 years of attending High Holidays services, I recall that in:

1978: My mother decides to take us to synagogue for the first time. I am wearing scratchy tights with a hand-me-down dress and patent leather shoes. My brother and I have no idea what’s going on. We sneak out to go to the bathroom and become embroiled in an intense dodge-ball game in a nearby alley, where I ditch the white tights to achieve full mobility. When we return to our seats, we look awful. We have also missed something called the Kol Nidre. This makes our mother cry and gaze longingly at other people’s children.

1983: I have become aware of the simple fact that most of the congregation’s members are rich and we are poor. I deduce this not only from the horrible sight of our bruised and rusting Datsun among the BMWs in the parking lot, but also from our seats in the far reaches of the balcony, from which our rabbi is just a tiny speck with a low, vibrating voice. When I ask my mother if we can park around the corner, she cries — not unlike after the dodge-ball incident – – and gives me some lecture on how we have things you can’t buy, blah, blah, blah.

1986: Puberty has made me very angry. How absurd that I should have to put on some ridiculous Gunne Sax outfit and pray among the bourgeoisie! I start referring to our synagogue as Temple Giorgio, based on the expensive perfume that was so popular at services that year. Secretly, I’m moved by the sermon, the talk of forgiveness, the music. But I’ve mixed up the religious content with the whole experience and it just makes me want to go out and smoke one of my Benson & Hedges Menthol Ultra Light cigarettes in the alley. But I have learned one thing. This time, I make it back to my seat in time for Kol Nidre. This time, it’s the smell of cigarette smoke that makes my mother cry.

1991: I’m away at college. I hear on the news that it’s “the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people.” How did I miss it? I don’t have any idea where to find services so late in the game. I feel more left out than I did at Temple Giorgio. I vow never to miss services again.

1992: Miss services again. This time, I figure, who needs them? I can do the whole fasting, forgiveness thing from the comfort of my own home. But it’s not really the same.

1993: Can’t afford services. Free services at a local college are more than an hour away. I stay home.

1996: My boyfriend has just left me and I’m set on staying home to see what’s going to happen with the television show “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” My best friend Lesley, the most sentimental human being on the planet, convinces me to go to services with her. She wants to “bond.” She thinks it will be good for me. During Kol Nidre, she cries harder than she did during the movie “The Bridges of Madison County.”

The rabbi talks about how the world can be a lonely place. I lean over and tell Lesley, “Yeah, I know. That’s why the Beatles wrote `Eleanor Rigby.'” It’s not that funny, but she starts laughing. Our whole aisle starts to giggle.

Outside after services, Lesley’s fixing her mascara as we navigate our way through the crowds. I start thinking about being part of a community, about not being alone, about the smallness of my everyday problems compared to the huge history of my people. I start having what might be considered a spiritual experience. Than I realize I’m just really hungry.

1998: I’m in a new city again and I don’t know if I want to go to services alone, plaintively humming “Eleanor Rigby.” In a way, it doesn’t matter. Feeling guilty for not going, going and playing dodge ball, going and giggling, going and feeling inspired, going and feeling alone, it’s all part of the same experience. Whether I pray or not, Yom Kippur always reminds me who I am.

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