Last year I spent Yom Kippur in Israel. It was my first time in Israel, and I had neglected to check the calendar. When I booked my Jerusalem hotel and flight, I had failed to realize that coming at a time when everything was shut down for two days was not optimal.
I have never considered myself a religious person and was raised essentially as a “Yom Kippur Jew.” My family went to synagogue only on the High Holidays to mostly appease my grandparents who came to the United States from Lithuania. My paternal grandfather was deeply religious, and I never remember seeing him without a prayer book by his side. He terrified me because he had a deep stillness within him that was unknowable.
What does a non-religious Jew do on Yom Kippur in Jerusalem when there are no tours, or open restaurants or shops? I walked through the Old City of Jerusalem until I reached the Western Wall and I spent Yom Kippur afternoon there just sitting with all the women dressed in white. There was the same stillness in the air that I remember emanating from grandfather. It was one the quietest and most moving experiences of my life.
The moment I came home to New York, I started planning to return to Israel the following year. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, that will not happen this year. But I also started seeking a place in the Jewish community that I felt so disconnected from. I spent last Autumn visiting synagogues in the city each Friday night. New York City is blessed with so many diverse and inclusive synagogues. I visited the large, grand synagogues that are deeply established in the city’s Jewish roots and the small upstarts that hold services in church community rooms. I finally found my place in the Romemu synagogue on the Upper West Side and became a member a week before the coronavirus shut down.
In early January I read about the Daf Yomi cycle where people from around the world read one portion of the Talmud each day. I jumped into the cycle with the hope I would discover the secrets of my religion and heritage, and everything that I found unknowable in my grandfather’s quietness. The journey has been difficult and at times I have been convinced that I cannot carry on and am not sure how much more of eruv concentric circles of 2,000 cubit feet I can bear. But I have come to connect with wonderful, dedicated, kind-hearted friends from around the world who are on the same journey. We have found each other in our common struggle to decipher the text and live our lives during the time of a pandemic. And through this all, I have found my Jewish center. I have traveled very far to come home.
Best wishes for an easy fast on Yom Kippur and your own coming home this year, wherever that will take you.
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