My girlfriend and I are not religious but we engaged quite fully with the recent Jewish holidays: Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) last week and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) yesterday. Such events are as community-orientated as they are religious and, for me, it’s a good opportunity to get to know my girlfriend’s family better. Besides, Jewish holidays are fun. They involve far more eating and boozing and blowing of animal horns than Christian holidays. No offense, Pope.
Yesterday’s ceremony for Yom Kippur was particularly eventful for me. A strange tone was set when the Cantor (the man who leads the entire congregation in prayer) came over and engaged our group in casual conversation. Perhaps I had unwittingly initiated this by smiling at him as he came down from the stage, but the Cantor is basically the focus of the entire ceremony so it was strange to have him in our company, talking about fashionable neck-wear while the ceremony was still going on around us. As a comedian, I wouldn’t dream of sitting in the audience and making chit-chat (especially if the show was still happening) and I’d imagined such an etiquette would be even more applicable in a house of worship. It was undeniably a blurring of social boundaries but, for me, it was perhaps magnified by the fact that a Cantor wears a massive and ornate hat. It was somewhat absurd to have him sitting among our group, shooting the shit, in his full ceremonial garb.
As if that weren’t enough, I was later offered an Aliya: the opportunity to read a passage from the Torah. This is considered a great honour, which made it difficult for me to decline. But it was also essential for me to decline. Not only would I have failed completely in the task (as I am unable to read Hebrew), the idea of a non-believer (an Atheist! a wolf in sheep’s clothes!) accepting this religious honour is distasteful even to me. According to some onlookers, I turned white with dread and I can believe it. There was no way I could bring myself to do this, technically or morally. Thankfully, my girlfriend’s brother stepped in before I had to throw off my kippah and confess to being an impostor.
One of the other men who had been selected for an Aliya was somewhat infirm and not really up to the physical task of holding the Torah scroll. At one point it looked as if he was going to drop and tear it. Someone behind me muttered, “Jesus Christ!” under his breath. If the volunteer had ripped the scroll, the damage would have been as expensive as it was sacrilegious. As a former librarian I know that those scrolls are hand-scribed on parchment and worth at least fifty-thousand dollars apiece. I wondered if my performance, if I had accepted my Aliya, could have been any worse than this man’s. I couldn’t help thinking that they’d made some poor choices for Aliya: an Athiest and a klutz.
The thought of the Torah being damaged during an Aliya left me feeling genuinely nauseous.
Anyhoo. The main thing for which people attend these ceremonies is the Rabbinical address. The Rabbi comes out and delivers a speech to the congregation, containing some spiritual or practical or ethical guidance for the year.
At Rosh Hashanah, the Rabbi told my favourite story: the story of the American businessman and the Mexican fisherman. A Rabbi in favour of the simple life.
A second Rabbi (at Yom Kippur) delivered the opposite message: that the Jewish people should work hard and find salvation in graft. One of his first remarks was, “Idlness is the key to anti-social behaviour”. This delighted my girlfriend’s brother who, knowing of my love for and involvement with the Idler, mimed the elderly Rabbi firing a bullet straight at my chest! We both giggled like idiots at this. It did have the illusion of a personal attack after we’d all agreed about the Escapological content of the first Rabbinical speech. “That’s the Protestant Work Ethic!”, agreed my girlfriend’s mother, “that’s the opposite of what Jews are about!”
What a meaningless sentiment though. “Idleness is the key to anti-social behaviour”. The most anti-social people I know are PhD students who are unable to look up from their work for five minutes to enjoy a glass of beer without guilt. Anyway, what does being anti-social have to do with anything? Since when was that a sin? Baffling. He might as well have announced that “Yodeling is the key to nonchalance”: two unrelated behaviours, the second of which is spiritually inconsequential.
Yom Kippur also involves fasting: from sundown to sundown. Eager to engage fully, I had fasted at last year’s Yom Kippur but this year I decided to forgo this part. After synagogue, we went to what was probably the most [in]appropriate place to eat: a bagel restaurant. Quite brilliantly, it was full of guilty-looking Jewish people, eating lox and cream-cheese bagels. Most of them had changed out of their synagogue clothes and were now dressed inconspicuously in jeans and t-shirts. We had not thought to do this and so my girlfriend still wore her long black dress and I proudly wore my three-piece suit, complete with folded-up kippah protruding from the breast pocket.
“They’ve just come from Synagogue!” whispered a clearly-Jewish woman to her husband as he polished off the last of his apple sauce-drenched latke.