The one day of the year I always felt Jewish
(Kveller via JTA)—Growing up as the only Jewish family in town meant that we missed out on a lot of things. We didn’t go to Hebrew school, we barely acknowledged Shabbat and we had very little connection to the Jewish community. My Israeli mother did her best to give us a basis in Judaism, but since my dad did not have a Jewish background and there were no other Jews for miles around, being Jewish was more of an abstract concept than a way of life.
But every year, when the air turned cooler and the leaves turned colors, something would change in our house. My mother would grow quieter, more solemn. Instead of laughing and scolding us in the kitchen, she’d be in her room poring over prayer books and muttering to herself in Hebrew. Even the air would feel heavier.
On Rosh Hashanah, we’d pick a few apples from the old orchard behind our house. We’d dip them in honey, wish each other a Shana Tovah and go back to our lives.
We knew it was an important day of festivities and new beginnings, but there was another day looming on the horizon. A day that carried with it such weight, such significance, that our apples and honey seemed like children’s games.
Yom Kippur was the real deal, the day for which we prepared for months. Not by picking apples or decorating the house, but by searching into our very young souls and reflecting on what it meant to be a good Jew. Because Yom Kippur was the one day of the year that we would feel, with every fiber of our beings, what it really was to be Jewish.
We fasted, all of us, from the time that we were very young, starting at 5 or 6. My mother never forced us, but it felt important and grown up and so, so Jewish.
We’d spend the day reading our Hebrew dictionaries or illustrated Bibles, or even the Haggadahs that were hidden deep in my mother’s closet. Anything that felt Jewish would do.
In the evening, we’d pile into the car wearing our nicest clothes (white, always white, to show purity). We’d huddle down with our growling stomachs and dry mouths and drive over 45 minutes to get to the closest synagogue, an unassuming building tucked in between the churches and bars that crowded town. A synagogue with beautiful stained glass windows and long empty rows of seats. A synagogue whose members were mostly over 60 years old.
We’d listen to the rabbi’s prayers and nod our heads. We’d sit and stand and sing and say amen and pound our chests and smile at our neighbors and try to follow along with the words written in a language we couldn’t read or write. Deep down past our thumping hears and growling stomachs, deep down in our neshamas (souls), we felt what it was like to be Jewish, and it felt GLORIOUS!
For many years, Yom Kippur was Judaism to me. It wasn’t until many years later that I experienced the playfulness of Purim and the joys of a community Shabbat.
Since then, I’ve learned much more about Judaism. I have spent time in Israel and explored the option of living a more observant life. I’ve felt the overwhelming wholeness of faith and connection, and the isolating chill of doubt.
When my children were small, I took great delight in cooking a Shabbat meal and lighting candles with them. But as they’ve gotten older, our busy schedules and their lack of interest have chipped away at this tradition.
In recent years, Yom Kippur has sometimes felt more of an inconvenience than a solemn day of reflection and connection to Judaism. I still fast, but I haven’t taken the kids to services and none of them fast. I hardly ever feel “ready” for the holy day any more. When this summer ended, I thought about Yom Kippur with a sense of panic. Would I even feel Jewish this year? Would my children? Have I failed to create that connection for them that was so important to me as a kid?
But then the fall came, and with it came some unexpected turns of events. I was offered a job teaching about Israel at the local temple and my son decided that he wanted to go to Hebrew school.
The last few weeks have been filled with apples and honey and endless conversations about kashrut. My son was bubbling with anticipation about hearing the shofar blow at his first Rosh Hashanah service, and all of my children have helped me to prepare my lesson about the holidays in Israel.
As the air turns crisper and the leaves begin to fall, I feel it again. That soft pull in my heart, that heaviness in the air.
Yom Kippur is coming. And this year I am ready.
Lela Casey is a mother of three children living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Being raised by a fiery Israeli mother and a gentle farmer in the middle of nowhere lent her a unique perspective on Judaism. She holds degrees from Penn State University and Rhode Island College. Besides contributing to Kveller, she has written several children’s books and young adult novels.
This piece first appeared on Kveller, a 70 Faces Media company.