“Open the gates of Heaven to our prayers”

One last confession after Yom Kippur. I didn’t spend Yom Kippur in a Gospel Church. That was linkbait (forgive me), but please don’t stop reading, because the title is true at least metaphorically.

I’m used to Yom Kippur being a miserable day. Maybe it’s because, as a secular Jew, I don’t understand what I’m supposed to be doing, only what I’m not — so I spend the day hungry and downbeat, because if I’m not in synagogue atoning for my sins then at least I shouldn’t make things worse by enjoying myself instead. I’m meant to feel awful, right?

Or maybe it’s because the synagogue services I’m used to are as dry as the valley of Ezekiel’s bones. I’ve tried Orthodox, where a huddle of old men mumble to themselves as the smell of BO wafts towards the heavens. I’ve also tried Reform, which is all very nice, but if I wanted to watch a choir instead of experiencing prayer, I’d buy an equally pricey ticket for a (superior) concert.

Now something has changed. I spent Yom Kippur with all the participants in the Ein Prat Midrasha’s Elul programme (of which more anon), at the culmination of an intensive, transformative and inspiring month. Our shul was at the flagship campus in Alon, a settlement in the Judean Desert (no, the irony of atoning for my sins in a settlement has not escaped me, and the dissonance was disturbing).

And lo, Yom Kippur metamorphosed into a magical, stirring, uplifting and (dare I say it?) spiritual experience, injected such life and joy that when Neilah ended twenty minutes behind schedule, I was more disappointed that we couldn’t carry on dancing than I was glad the fast was over.

Together we sang at the top of our voices till hoarse. Together, we thumped on our books danced in ecstasy. And together, we whipped each other into the closest thing to a trance without illicit substances. I’m not joking when I say each round of Hashiveinu or Teheh Ha’Shaah Zot lasted a good fifteen minutes. (Nai na-na-nai-nai, Nai na-na-nai-nai, Nai-nai-nai-nai…) A bit Gospel, if you like, but more Jewish.

And you know what? I prefer it this way. It makes good historical sense: Jewish history has been too lachrymose and wretched for us to make ourselves miserable just stam, when we could be rejoicing a goat’s throw from Azazel. Returning from Exile, we can afford to shake off the repulsive diasporic mentality of grovelling for forgiveness instead of facing up to our pasts like the free and independent people we are.

It also makes good theological sense. On Yom Kippur, we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life before God seals it. But if we’re being honest, these 25 hours aren’t going to make a jot of difference — whether you’ve done a whole month of selichot or haven’t been to shul since the previous Yom Kippur. So why not just enjoy it, and live the day as if it were really your last? On my last day on this Earth, I’d love to be on my bare feet singing and dancing and embracing total strangers, with small breaks for reflection and learning around “lunch”. And I wouldn’t eat or drink or shower, because life would be too short for that. (Ideally I’d like to use my phone to call my parents, but I’d expect them to visit me.) I would want to meet my maker with a smile on my face and a bounce in my step, not hunched, downbeat and, well, a bit soulless.

So here’s to life, to love and to happiness. Have a wonderful year, and gmar chatimah tovah. Next year in Jerusalem!