As previous years of holiday season in the Jewish calendar went, I found that this one was the most meaningful to me, for obvious reasons. But, I figure that I might as well take a trip down memory lane, recalling my thoughts and emotions from other High Holiday seasons that have happened since I became a Bar Mitzvah. They haven’t always resonated well! Lots of thoughts are in here, so I am going to split this retrospective into two parts.
Well, let me say why there isn’t much prior to 2000 in my memory bank. Before I became a Bar Mitzvah, I have little recollection of the High Holidays. The most vivid memory that I have from my younger years is one year that we lived in Fort Dodge, when we returned home on foot from Yom Kippur services, and that was a two-mile walk (but felt a lot longer to me back then). At least the weather was sunny that day!
The first High Holidays following my coming of age was during my eighth-grade year, in 2000. Almost immediately following my Bar Mitzvah, I suffered from burnout, and got the conviction that I didn’t want to step foot in the synagogue again for a long time. Since I lived in Lincoln, NE back then, the only semblance of Jewish life that I was aware of was at the synagogue, as most of my upbringing had been through the rituals of services and occasional dinners with the Corens. And keeping semi-kosher at home.
Another factor was that I strongly disliked missing school, even for the holidays. During my eighth-grade year, thankfully for me, I only missed one day of school, but it was already a tormenting day, because it was one of those elementary-only-off days in Lincoln Public Schools, and my siblings missed no class that day as a result. To make things more challenging for me, we went to Omaha for Yom Kippur that year, and went to the Orthodox synagogue to which Grammy and Grampy belonged. In retrospect, the service couldn’t have been that much different from the Conservative service, but I was glumly following along, trying to escape in my own mind. Furthermore, this was the first year that I felt the moral obligation (since children pre-B’nai Mitzvah are not supposed to) fast.
The next year, the High Holidays occurred in mid/late September. The year was 2001, so clearly the Divrei Torah touched a lot on the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Still, the service didn’t mean much to me, other than the fact that I missed several days of classes, and my English class was one of the toughest classes that I had taken up to this point in my life. I was fairly deep into the Bar Mitzvah burnout at this point, so that the services themselves didn’t resonate well with me. I was not as reluctant as in 2000, but was nonetheless not moved by the holidays.
Basically, from my Bar Mitzvah until I started college, I became the stereotypical “three-times-a-year” Jewish person in terms of ritual or semi-ritual observance: i.e. the High Holidays, Hanukkah, and Pesach. Though my siblings all became B’nai Mitzvot during those years, and though I read Torah during their services, it was forced upon me. As a result, my memories of the High Holidays during my high school years are quite fuzzy. But one thing sticks out: I blew the shofar each year on Rosh Hashanah, which at least encouraged me to go to the services. Also, during my senior year, I remember feeling bummed to miss an LSE football game that coincided with Yom Kippur, but in retrospect, I probably would not have wanted to see it–it was the one when Brady Beran from East got severely injured.
Actually, perhaps two weeks after that Yom Kippur, a small thing happened that may have planted a seed in me for my future rediscovery of Judaism. Dad and I were in Boston, visiting MIT and Harvard. On the Friday that we were at MIT (i.e. October 8, 2004), on the MIT campus, we saw a sukkah that was still up. We stepped inside for a little bit and said shehechiyanu (despite the fact that Sukkot was technically already over). No other words about the ritual and social aspects of Judaism were said, but seeing more people in this sort of a setting may have resonated with me, deeply awaiting a stimulus to be awakened.
As I continued into college, we had a new rabbi come to our synagogue (Royi Shaffin), which also seemed to bring a new perspective. One of the things that kept me interested, other than the freshness of a different rabbi, was what appeared to be shorter Divrei Torah. I don’t know whether they were actually shorter than when I was in middle school, or whether I simply got engaged in them more. Either way, it made for a much more enjoyable experience over these holidays during my freshman year. Sometimes, it takes a change in leadership or simply a change in perspective. Although my re-entry into the ritual side of Judaism (i.e. going regularly or semi-regularly) to services didn’t happen immediately, I was eventually inspired by the change in leadership, and learnt about the Monday and Thursday minyanim at the synagogue, which I began to attend regularly. This gave me a new appreciation toward the rituals. Furthermore, I got involved with briefly reviving the junior congregation on some Shabbat mornings, under Rabbi Shaffin’s guidance.
Of course, from my sophomore year and on, I journaled to chronicle my thoughts and actions. Though they didn’t always have many details about the thoughts, my choice of words makes an easy prime for me to remember the emotions that I may have noticed on the holidays. The holiday services were led by Rabbi Shaffin and the tunes that I actually started paying attention to kept me interested. As a scholar, I also became more interested in the structure of the services. One of the Divrei Torah that year was to “imagine your funeral. What might others remember you for?” and so it was a fairly thought-provoking, if perhaps scary, sermon.
On Yom Kippur of that year, I was enchanted by the Kol Nidrei service more so than in previous years. The evening service had a D’var Torah about commitments that one might make, which almost seems to fly directly in the face of the idea of Kol Nidrei, though I didn’t make that connection at that time. In the morning, the services went normally, until near the Torah service, when Rabbi Shaffin had gone into the study. I know that he exits just before Musaf in order to walk slowly to the bimah during Hineni, but this was different. It turned out that he was under the weather, and so Nancy Coren ended up pinch-leading the remainder of the service, including the evening service. It didn’t feel like the High Holidays, since some of the tunes she used were the “regular Shabbat” tunes (primarily talking about the Amidah).
For the first time that I can recall, I went to the Mincha/N’eilah services with Dad. Hearing the story of Jonah, Bob’s D’var Torah on martyrdom, and more ended up keeping me engaged. Another interesting idea just before we began N’eilah: the idea that by this time, we are all angels. Because of the pinch-leading, we had to wait a while after we reached the end of the Amidah, since quite a bit of it was done responsively (or together) in English. My emotions were mostly fatigue, at least as alluded to in my journal:
“This service has some of the longest…
…Haftarah: at least four pages long!
…Evening service: almost three hours!
…Standing sequence: thirty-two pages!”
This seems like a good point to place a “TO BE CONTINUED” tag, because the remaining years of High Holiday services represent a significant change in my reactions. So, I’ll put on suspense and Part II will be next.