Jonathan Silin
Jonathan Silin

Called to Account: Learning to Love Yom Kippur

Although growing up in a conservative Jewish home during the 1950s — the laws of kashrut followed, the holidays honored, Hebrew school and B’nei Mitzvah obligatory — I was always caught off guard by the flurry of preparations for the High Holidays. While opining that they had arrived either early or late, my mother fussed over our outfits which were inevitably too warm for the second summer days or too cool for the brisk fall days that both mark September. The fussing added to my anticipation of the coming year, the quickening of city life after the summer doldrums and, especially in adolescence, the chance to try on new social identities with peers.

But I was also perplexed because I associated the commitment to becoming a better person that I saw as the heart of the holidays with the secular New Year. January first was the moment to make resolutions and set goals for personal improvement. In September I was stirred up, anxious about the return to school. The seriousness of the adults was out of sync with my emotional clock which ticked with nervous energy rather than the slower movement of mindful introspection.

In childhood the holidays seemed to come out of no where, the summer a wasteland of Jewish practice. Hebrew School ran on a secular calendar and, although my father would occasionally make vague references to holidays of summer sadness, he did not attend shul. What possible meaning could the destruction of a temple so long ago and commemorated in Tisha B’Av have for Jews striving to be modern in a 1950s sort of way? Having barely survived the Holocaust we hardly needed another reminder of Jewish suffering and vulnerability. No, in mid-century America, Jews seemed to take the summer off just like everyone else.

Living most of my adult life in academic institutions, I experienced the High Holidays as an awkwardly timed breathing space in the onslaught of start up activities. Now, after a decade of renewed participation in Jewish life, I see the new year celebration not as a misplaced jolt of spirituality but rather as an integral part of the religious calendar. During the proceeding month of Elul we to prepare the ground by assessing the cumulative impact of moments of brokenness inside us and others outside in the larger world. The holidays function both as culminating event and a fresh beginning.

My new appreciation for the holidays is layered, built on memories of an earlier time when the fall signaled a moment of return to Jewish practice after the long summer hiatus.

Freshly starched and outfitted — Yom Kippur white shirt, Brooks Brothers tie curtesy of my doting grandmother, and Harris tweed sport jacket, courtesy of my older brother, I stand next to my father in synagogue. He is completely absorbed in the moment, rhythmically, unpretentiously, chanting in a barely audible voice. He doesn’t miss a phrase, stop for a meditative reading, or enjoy an English text as we are encouraged to do by contemporary rabbis. Nor can it be said that he is preying, for this suggests something that anyone, of any religion, can do at any time. Rather, he davens, swaying back and forth the words, the order of the service, are in his body as much as in his mind, in his heart as much as in his head.

  In our Reconstructionist synagogue on the upper West Side of Manhattan, his davening, his traditional practice, means he politely ignores the spiritual leaders on the bimah, the raised platform at the front of the synagogue. Or, more in keeping with his respectful yet determined way, he is always just out of sync with the others. 

My extended family joined The Society for the Advancement of Judaism because of its progressive social commitments, because, for my mother, religion was all about family not theology and, if truth be told, because the children required a Jewish education. We sat in the balcony, never on the main floor of the sanctuary where, with my child’s eyes for social distinctions, I liked to identify the important families, the families that really belong. Our place at a distance from the bimah, our marginality, was self imposed. It reflected my father’s ambivalence about leaving matters of belief up to the individual, about reconstructing American Jewish life within the framework of Mordecai Kaplan’ seminal book, Judaism as a Civilization.

My cousins and I relied on my father for the all important nod. When the short cantor with his imposingly high hat silently disappeared from view and the rabbi or one of the several men who sat on the bimah in business suits and kittel, white linen robes worn on Yom Kippur, slowly and confidently took possession of the floor to deliver what today would be called a d’var Torah but in those days was undeniably the sermon. I don’t recall seeing a woman in one of those ornate, high backed chairs with blush red velvet seats that flank the ark with the Torah scrolls, this despite the new equity that was heralded with the first bat mitzvah of Mordecai Kaplan’s own daughter in 1922.

When we were younger we took my father’s nod as an invitation to join our peers outside, share stories about the fast in progress, chat about the summer gone by, and make tentative overtures when we spied a new comer. We had almost an hour. The sermon was often controversial, the high point of the day for many of the upper Westside intellectuals who populated the congregation. When I was older and decided to stay the topic was often life in the “diaspora,” a word I never fully grasped but one that sounded weighted down with ominous meanings. 

Looking back, I see the challenge of those years, in the wake of the Holocaust, was to find a way to live in relationship to the new and fragile state of Israel. How, in good faith, was it possible to remain in America? At what price did we purchase the security and comfort of this good life? Beneath it all: what did it mean to have survived the war and to move forward?

Even as I recall these scenes from childhood and struggle to reconcile who I was with who I am today, my believing self and my agnostic self, I have come to embrace the new year holiday as a moment when we are called to account. Not a narrative of dates and events that might be extracted from my computer calendar, nor the stories of emotional ups and downs regularly proffered in my therapist’s office. No, the call I hear, issued by the Jewish tradition and filtered through the words of my rabbi, is to account for the ways in which I have become more whole during the year gone by and the attention I need to pay in the year ahead to broken and unresolved connections.

I am filled with ambivalence in the synagogue. I scour every corner of my soul for moments of wrong doing during the preceding twelve months. The process of enumerating sins, this emptying out, this ethical purging, leaves me dissatisfied. Too many, too few, too late? Or, could it be that I don’t like beating myself up, not measuring up, allowing my overbearing superego free rein for days at a time? Being caught in what feels like a cul-de-sac of sin, remorse, and promises to do better is discomforting if not counter productive to the project of mindful reflection. 

Perhaps personal, intentional discomfort is only one aspect of the work to which we commit during the holiday. Jews after all strive to prey in community. I tell myself that I come to synagogue because its where I belong. I don’t need to know the people around me, their particular joys and sorrows, to feel an ineffable sense of connection. We share the opportunity to reflect on the year — to repent, to confess, to ask that previous vows be forgiven, and to be inscribed in the book of life. Together we enjoy these containers provided by the tradition that we fill with our doubts, remorse, and hopes for the future.

I am caught up in the drama and the poetry of these familiar themes, the engagement powered by remembering and communing with family long gone, loved ones who have succumbed to illness too early and others who have finally yielded to the cumulative impacts of aging. These memories make me sad and offer comfort, reminders of the social web in which we are all embedded.

Being called to account does not start in adulthood, its central to our very beginnings when our caregivers eagerly want to know: What makes us happy or uncomfortable? What causes us pleasures or prompts our fear? Becoming human is a dialogic process. We are always a self in relation to others. And it is in this way that we learn to know ourselves, as selves. It is in this way too that we begin to reflect on the world and how it works.

In Giving an Account of Oneself Judith Butler identifies the moments in adulthood when being called to account feels threatening, intimidating — policeman at the stop light, the tax collector at the annual audit, the educator with their standardized tests. But there are also times when we are hailed by others who are genuinely curious about the ways that we describe our lives. Then the truth value of our words is not of the propositional, if x then y, kind. Rather it is to be found in the way that our language reflects how we live and who we strive to become. Just as our actions in the material world may be read for what we intend, so too our words are also actions, efforts to communicate, persuade, seduce. They are a form of doing that bespeak a way of living, a moral practice.

In the synagogue we may be physically alone but our efforts to assess the year do not take place in isolation. We are always in conversation with others, responding to parents, children, friends, and mentors — sometimes living, sometimes not. We come to the synagogue to care for the self, not in a selfish way, but in way that honors the complicated bonds and interdependencies that make our lives possible.  

In the Jewish tradition we are asked to practice the arts of tikun atzmi, repair of the self, as a way to insure that we are able to fulfill our commitment to tikun olam, repair of the world. We can not care for the world without caring for ourselves. In turn the world cares for us by compelling us to account for ourselves, drawing us into self-consciousness and life with others. 

Telling the truth of our lives is never easy, always problematic. The story changes over time. The stories my 20 year-old self told were different from those of my 40 or 60 year old self. The story changes with the audience. The ways I represent myself to students, family, friends and colleagues all differ. I edit according to my assessment of the questioner and the kinds of answers that will best be heard and understood. These multiple representations aren’t distortions of a single truth but rather reflect the complexity of the social moment.

Inevitably, its an imperfect, failed process, this giving an account of oneself. Each of our lives overflows the language at our disposal for representing it. There is always space between this language and how we understand ourselves. The stories I could tell about being gay in the 1950s, for example, were largely determined by the narratives available to me of tormented, self-hating men. Later, in the 70s I could talk about living in or out of “closet,” and in the 1980s I had to contend with popular images of the self-indulgent clone chastened by AIDS. In the following decades entirely new stories were made possible by the growing number of queer families. Today I can even choose to place my primary relationship within the traditional envelope of marriage. 

In synagogue I have a heightened awareness of the limits of our accounts, always incomplete because there are parts of ourselves that we can not access and do not know. Our earliest history, our preverbal life has the most confounding way of surfacing and resurfacing, interrupting our sense of control and claim to the achievement of responsible adulthood. The best we can do, the only ethical thing to do, is to acknowledge how much we don’t know and to forgive ourselves and others this hiddenness. And how could it be otherwise? For we are changed in the process of giving our account. We have never done it exactly this way, at this time, for this person or that group of people. We will not be the same person at the beginning of Elul as at the end of Yom Kippur.

Its a risky business, this giving an account because we may be brought up short, surprised by the questioner and the phrasing of the question. Caught off guard, we may find ourselves at a loss, may lose our way, even as we scramble to formulate a response. But losing our way is sorely under appreciated as a route to learning and knowing the road ahead is greatly overrated.

We accept the risk because to deny it, to remain silent when hailed in the synagogue or else where, is to deny a relationship. To give an account of oneself is an opportunity to become more whole, more in touch with who we are and therefore with the larger world.

My good friend Therese is fond of reminding me that I have a strong spiritual side. I am less certain but trust her judgment. After all, we worked side by side delivering AIDS care and advocacy during the worst of the epidemic in New York and . . . she goes to mass every morning. I find the posture of awe and wonder when considering the not knowing, the hiddenness, at the heart of our being, of our being with others, is reassuring. When called to account, alternatively defensive and vulnerable, my responses partial and imperfect, I give myself over to the here and now with its provocations, disorientations, and lack of coherence. It is only in such unsettling moments as these that I imagine we might encounter the transcendent during the High Holidays and everyday thereafter.

About the Author
Jonathan Silin is a Fellow at the Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, University of Toronto. Formerly a member of the Bank Street College Graduate Faculty, he is the author/editor of 4 books including his most recent, Early Childhood, Aging and the Life Cycle: Mapping Common Ground. His occasional essays have appeared in the NYTimes, Tablet and the Chronicle of Higher Eduations.
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