Growing up in the Diaspora, the dread of a looming Yom Kippur settled in as our Rosh Hashanah celebrations dissipated into the twilight.
In my youth, the dictates of faith felt like an impediment to the familiarity of my daily life. This was especially true on Yom Kippur, despite my family attending a progressive Manhattan synagogue where traditional observances (our Chief Rabbi was a woman) and attendance (even on High Holy Days) was laxer than the Conservative congregation I joined as an adult.
On Yom Kippur, my desire to be a “Good Jew”, to spend the day fasting and praying, rather than sleeping in, watching television, or doing homework (as my friends, both Jewish and not, were prone to do when school was closed) weighed on me.
What a challenge to sacrifice a full day! To go hungry, not shower, or brush my teeth! To commit my “time off” from the pressures of competitive private school and spend an interminable amount of time standing and sitting, sitting and standing in the sanctuary of our shul! To manifest a sincere sense of solemness and somberness as I scanned the Mahzor, counting all the transgressions I made during the year from this very long list! All while considering (much to my chagrin) why was I so ‘transgressive’? And wondering, if I was prone to make the same mistakes year after year, perhaps I was not – nor would I ever be – a ‘Good Jew’.
For most of my life, Yom Kippur felt, literally, like a lockdown. I was forced to do that which I had no desire. My daily routine was interrupted. I was restricted from activities that were critical (eating), necessary (studying) or gratifying (sleeping). I had to acknowledge all my faults and ask forgiveness (a more cumbersome feat in our haughty youth then our humble maturity)! And much like Israel’s current lockdown – in which I find myself having made Aliyah two years ago – I felt isolated, irritated, introspective, inundated with thoughts about the person I was, and imagining the person I could be.
If Yom Kippur was not burdensome enough, it was oft-compounded by the harsh reality of being Jewish in a Gregorian calendar world. A late September baby, my birthday and Yom Kippur coincided every few years.
When I arrived in Israel during December 2018, Yom Kippur was the last thing on my mind as I navigated the complexities of olim life. But as summer ended, and fall settled in, the High Holy Days loomed more imminent than ever.
Still, I prepared for Yom Kippur as I always had, as many do. I ate a meal exceeding my digestive capacity, showered, turned off my cell phone, exchanged my leather loathers for a pair of Converse, and donned a simple white dress. Already thirsty (a psychological reaction to knowing I could not drink, rather than a physiological need to) and suffering “offline anxiousness” (I had been off email and WhatsApp for a full 15 minutes), I headed to services.
What I discovered there, and in the 24 hours following, was unlike anything I ever experienced on Yom Kippur. The sober solemness was replaced with a jarring jubilation and impassioned acceptance of the challenge ahead. An electrifying excitement of what was to come infused the air. And despite the dazzling diversity of the congregation (we were, after all, in the “Free State of Tel Aviv” where faith appears less prominently and even less pronounced than the rest of Israel) there was a discernible sense of community. There was a tangible reality I could almost taste, touch, smell, see, feel, that we were all ‘in this together’.
For the first time Yom Kippur didn’t feel like a challenge to endure. And certainty not alone (despite knowing none of my fellow fast-mates). For the first time I recognized the tradition of congregating for prayer, the collaborative effort of forming a Minyan even among strangers would – in fact, could – create a singular opportunity for our prayers to be heard. For the first time I believed that our shared commitment to our shared faith, would guide and support us – as individuals and as a people – to wholeheartedly make the changes demanded of us. And that the choice before me, before all of us, was not about being a ‘Good Jew’, but being a ‘Better Jew’ in the coming year.
Most importantly, my first Yom Kippur in Israel was an experience in continuity. Not continuity as dreaded drudgery, but as a dynamic, delightful obligation. An obligation both promising and rewarding, however cumbersome and uncomfortable. An obligation observed for centuries, regardless of the specific circumstantial strife and strain our ancestors were forced to reconcile with; strife and strain far greater in measure then any I would ever confront as Jewish woman in the modern, free Jewish state.
So when the Israeli government announced the holiday lockdown, for the first time in my life I dreaded not a looming Yom Kippur, but its loss.
Yet, as Rosh Hashanah dwindled into the twilight, I was more inspired than ever. Because the challenge is greater than ever. And so too will be the reward if I, if we, choose to meet it.
For when we rise to the challenge of Yom Kippur, when we make the choice to change how we live (just for one day), we create for ourselves – and in collaboration with our community – an opportunity for spiritual transformation. As a result we lay a stronger foundation for the continuity of the Jewish people. And we are better for it.
And so on this Yom Kippur, and throughout the lockdown, we too must rise to the challenge. We must make the choice to change how we live (for a few weeks) and create for ourselves – and in collaboration with our community (at a safe social distance) – the opportunity to transform our public health crisis into a stronger foundation for our public’s health. And we will be better – we will be healthier – for it.
For as it is said: l’fum tzara agra, according to the effort is the reward.
In memory of my father Eric Norman Kronfeld z’’l