October 8th, 2019. Today is a special day. Thirty-one years ago, something special happened. My mother went into labor. Days overdue, my parents were eagerly awaiting the arrival of their son — me. They decided to watch a film the night before I was born called Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The laughter shared between my two parents was so loud and hysterical that it induced my birth in just a couple of hours. So I came into the world surrounded by laughter. A more fitting name for me would have been Yitzack, or Isaac. Isaac was named after laughter, and the Hebrew root of his name is also the root of the verb to laugh. Isaac was named after laughter because both his father (Gen. 17:17) and mother (Gen 18:12) laughed at the thought of becoming new parents at such an old age. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t the thought of becoming new parents that humored my parents, rather it was a funny movie. When my mother went into labor, my father rushed her to the hospital. After a long time searching for a parking spot, they made their way to the room I was born in, in a hospital located in Trenton, New Jersey.
Since today is October 8th, I thought I would share that addition to being Yom Kippur, today is also my birthday. Today might not be the kind of birthday I wished for as a child, complete with cupcakes, a party, a clown, singing and dancing, but something has brought me back to shul today all after these years. I have long wondered, what was it that brought me back here on my birthdays as a child? Was it the great Avinu Malkeinu? Was it Yizkor? Unetaneh Tokef? El Male Rachamim? Was it the great sound of the Shofar blasts? The Great Aleinu? Or was it embedded in some dark self-sadistic, self-flagellant recess of my mind? This year, I wanted to get to the bottom of this dilemma of mine. So, I looked both inward and outward for the answer to these questions.
Looking outward, there is a surprisingly abundant amount of source material on birthdays that fall on Yom Kippur. These Jewish sources include a lot of rabbinic, and even some halachic, material. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the senior rabbi of the National Synagogue – Ohev Shalom, in Washington, D.C., also shares a birthday with me on Yom Kippur this year, and he has contributed some material on this subject. About 10 years ago, Rabbi Herzfeld wrote a sermon about this special birthday. Without being present at the delivery of the sermon, it is hard to read Rabbi Herzfeld’s words as playful, cynical, serious, or in jest. His words could be read a number of ways. However, I find it difficult to not read his words as satirical at several points during the sermon. For instance, in his sermon, he writes, “What a blessing [it is] to have a Birthday on Yom Kippur! Not only do I get to spend the whole day doing something I love with most of my friends, but I also get to spend the entire day in contemplation of my future and my actions.”Rabbi Herzfeld continues, “On one level Yom Kippur reminds us of our own mortality. When we read Unetane Tokef, we are reminded that we don’t know what the coming year will bring. Mi yichyeh u-mi yamut, who amongst us will live and who will die? Who amongst us will celebrate another birthday and who will not? On one level having a Birthday on Yom Kippur is a definite reminder that I should make sure to appreciate this Birthday.” I cannot help but think that Rabbi Herzfeld is being playful here. I cannot imagine the reminder of imminent death being something I would like to think about on my birthday. Rabbi Herzfeld then dives into a long fascinating discussion about the responsibilities of high priests and temple functions during Yom Kippur. This discussion would be out of place in most Reform shuls. To Rabbi Herzfeld’s credit, his discussion does dismiss the Kohen Gadol’s functions over the abilities of educated Jews – which could be a good intersection for Reform Judaism. Although he does answer some of my anecdotal ponderings, his sermon sadly does not answer my big question (it’s not his question): What was it that brought me back here on my birthdays as a child?
My journey to find an answer to this question took me outside of the scope of Jewish sources. I dove into extra-biblical/rabbinic source material. Could it be a psychological answer – that embedded into some dark self-sadistic, self-flagellant recess of my mind was the desire to be at shul on a day otherwise marked as a day for celebration? Was the loud thumping feeling of my hand beating against my chest during the Ashamnu comforting? Maybe. Elon Arad of Haaretz writes that “during the Middle Ages, the practice of self-flagellation became commonplace on the day before Yom Kippur both in Europe and in the Arab world. Jewish men would use whips, often inscribed with biblical passages such as ‘it shall be a holy convocation unto you; and ye shall afflict your souls’ (Leviticus 23:27) – and would whip their own backs, usually 39 times.
Through the years, the practice became less and less common. By the 20th century, the practice has been all but eliminated, though some people still do it this very day, in some form or other.”According to an article in Psychology Today written by Dr. Guy Winsch, self-flagellation is connected to guilt and self-punishment. However, in the article, Dr. Winsch states, “There are far less costly, less shaming, and less painful ways to ease feelings of guilt and maintain our reputations than modern forms of whipping oneself with irons. For example, apologies do not have to be costly to be effective.” Sometimes an apology is more difficult than a thump on the chest, but Winsch continues to say that an apology is a better long-term solution.
This makes sense; we do not always have the opportunity to apologize to everyone, so Ashamnu is an essential part of my liturgy. But, what makes me different? This doesn’t really explain away whatever brought me back here on my birthdays as a child. Exhausting my search looking outward, I now needed to look inward.
Looking inward upon myself, I think back to my earliest experiences at synagogue, and in doing so, I finally find some answers. As a child, I recall my father’s ridiculous humor throughout every Yom Kippur service. Something about the disconnect between solemn prayer and playfulness is funny. I remember one year, there was a very, very old man playing an electric piano for Kol Nidre. I am not sure what thought or if any thought whatsoever went into the decision to have Kol Nidre played on an electric piano by this poor fellow. I remember listening to the painful performance, which lasted no less than half an hour, and as the performance wrapped up, and the congregation began to wake up from a long nap, my father turned to me and said that it sounded like the theme song to Tales from the Cryptkeeper. As the slumbering congregation, slowly regained cognitive function, my father awakened the remaining congregants as he let out a cackling laughter clearly imitating the crypt keepers laugh. To be fair, the rendition of Kol Nidre was so off, I was having a hard time distinguishing the two. Another year, my father got his finger stuck in the fan holder of the pew. I remember watching him hopeless, trying to dislodge his large fingers during the service as though he was Chris Farley, trying to sell bumper pads in Tommy Boy. Somehow he still wows me, even well into adulthood. During my year in the Israel program, I gave my parents a fair warning. The country shuts down on Yom Kippur. Be close to a synagogue. Where did my parents end up staying? Ein Karim, an Arab city in Israel. Where did they go on Yom Kippur? A church, or a mosque, because no shul was nearby.
A single thread connects these memorable experiences together: humor. It is warm and inviting. As shown in my unique birth story, it invited me into this world, and it has kept me in the synagogue for my unique birthday. Let it ring out today, every day, in our shuls, in our families, and in our lives. And finally, do not let the solemnness of the day eclipse our ability to enjoy humor. For it is this bond between solemn prayer and playfulness that keeps our children returning to shul.