As a child, the rituals of Judaism stirred me. My orthodox parents raised me in a vibrant congregation whose rabbi won our affection with his wisdom, charisma, and goodwill. More than anything, the High Holidays were pleasurable and alluring. I recall solemn and promising hymns. Traditional services were haunting, yet somehow, reassuring and light. My parents and mentors insisted that temporary failures lead to lasting successes and wrongdoers are capable of new beginnings. Our congregation united in prayer and song, confident the future would be brighter than the past.
That was then. Today, the anxieties of middle-age unnerve me. Personal and professional misfortunes amid a pandemic and economic upheaval are discouraging and leave me bitter. Too many opportunities for companionship and conversation are unavailable and my tolerance for isolation and uncertainty has worn thin. I am observant but hardly inspired, practicing but not with unwavering faith. This year, the prospect of holidays does not excite me. If I cannot model confidence for my students and family, I might by some means demonstrate fortitude and an imaginative permutation of hope.
Like other faithful children, I was trained in the art of ambition. My parents and mentors accepted me for who I was and respected me for who I could become. By sharing stories of giants and saints, our rabbi taught us to discover possibilities by gazing beyond limitations. My education and religious experience were idealistic, instilling the values of positive thinking and resolve. Still, while incidences of actualized potential in the Bible exist, disappointment and anguish are not uncommon themes in Jewish history. Moses was denied entry into the Land of Israel and King David “mixed drinks with weeping” and was “lonely, like a bird on a roof.” For me, this holiday season calls for empathy as much as yearning, something between ordinary optimism and the passive surrender to fate.
“He who learns must suffer,” lamented Aeschylus, “and even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” In the interest of avoiding sorrow, during recent months I have lowered expectations. To protect me from discouragement, I have dissociated, detached. Often throughout this pandemic, I have acted passively, woefully enduring discomfort drop by drop. My students and family too are suffering from restricted interactions and ruptured routines. As an educator and father, it is demoralizing to be with limited practical suggestions. As a man of faith, I can mask despondency with devotion and also experience disheartenment while awaiting God’s awful grace.
Commenting on the structure of biblical narrative, the British philosopher and theologian Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests: “The Greeks gave the world the concept of tragedy. Jews gave it the idea of hope.” To Rabbi Sacks, “every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation or the blind acceptance of fate.” This holiday season, I feel not quite Greek and not entirely Jewish. In the interval between ‘I suffer’ and ‘I pray,’ hope lies dormant, unaroused. I am hesitant to reveal my apathy but reluctant to deny my indifference. Honesty is the only possibility I can suppose, for now.
In the end, the rituals, poetry, and holiday symbols will provide me with measures of contentment and solace. Instead of suffering tragically, I will act decisively, with intent. By participating actively I can demonstrate resilience if not conviction. Engaging with my past might help me to cope with the future and endow students and family with memories to nourish them where they go. Throughout childhood, the High Holidays were never tedious or disenchanting. I associate the holidays with hope because of the inspirational services of my youth. While I may not be entirely hopeful, positive associations and memories might induce some form of optimism and provide a therapeutic effect.
To begin with, I will polish my great-grandfather’s antique silver snuff box and unfold my grandmother’s white linen tablecloth. From the top bookshelf, I will delicately retrieve heirloom books of prayer. I will rehearse liturgy and melodies to lead the locked down congregation and arrange my prayer space for physical distancing. From the hall closet, I will collect my grandfather’s ceremonial white cotton robe. I will prepare myself deliberately in the manner I saw my father ready himself. My preparations will be sentimental and not entirely sacred. Each step of the process – and every detail – might steady my nerves and restore me to myself.
Social scientists have identified mental health benefits associated with religiosity and prayer. I can reconcile meditation and mindfulness with schools of conventional Jewish thought. This year, my approach to holiday customs and ceremonies will be less reverent and more aesthetic. My prayers will be less supplicating and more aimed at the consolation my nostalgia affords. If successful, my efforts will inspire adaptivity and comforting evocations for my students and family. Longing for something to change but not expecting miracles, I will engage with holiday rituals and demonstrate how traditions can be sustaining. With minimal optimism, I will hope and with nominal confidence, I will pray. Not entirely Jewish, and not quite Greek.