On Passover, many are quick to point out that it is the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday. This victory for Passover is read as an affirmation of Jewish values — its emphasis on storytelling, on asking questions, on freedom and justice, on religion at the dinner table rather than a formal setting, on community and on resilience.
Yom Kippur, on the other hand, offers no such warm fuzzies, likely a cause for its recent slip from the number one spot in the rankings. On Yom Kippur, each Jew stands alone, pleading for forgiveness as the gates of heaven close and judgment is passed. This 25-hour process is not a bonding experience, but one of hunger and isolation, a marathon of mostly silent, individual prayer. It is not a holiday of community.
Before I left for college, my dad and I would exchange supplementary readings during services. He’d hand off photocopies of essays by his favorite rabbis on forgiveness and repentance. During those long, murmured services, my dad and I would read our Yom Kippur packets separately, glancing at each other through the partition between our gendered sections in the orthodox sanctuary.
I grew up in Dallas where there were six Jews in my grade. In many of the expressions of my Jewish identity, from keeping Kosher to missing school for holidays nobody else was celebrating, I felt a version of the individuality that’s particularly acute on Yom Kippur. I thought that Yale, with its active Hillel, engaged Chabad and east coast location, would be different. Quickly, however, I discovered that while there were Jews everywhere, Judaism, the Yom Kippur kind of Judaism — the introspective kind, the life-molding kind — was harder to find. In most settings, I remained the most observant of my peers. I wasn’t having the conversations about Judaism that I thought I would be able to have. So once again, my family was able to supplement my Jewish experience, adding deeper meaning and richer content. Not on Yom Kippur, but on Passover, the fun holiday, by bringing a Seder to the Silliman Dining Hall Annex my freshman year. It served as a jumping off point for conversations I’ve tried to keep having since. Not just, “How upset would your parents be if you married your non-Jewish significant other?” but, “How do you find Judaism spiritually lacking, and where can Judaism answer for that absence?”
It’s so much easier to avoid religious observances than to wrestle them into an existing approach to life structured on secular ideals. Just over a week ago while in New York for Rosh Hashanah, I felt uncomfortable checking my phone three blocks from synagogue before turning if off — but I did it anyway. When my brother had to leave the dinner table to discuss a role he’d just gotten in a play, I wished that he didn’t have to — but I still congratulated him when he returned to the table.
“I have strange observances,” I told a friend, as explanation for my erratic choices during this High Holy Day season. “I like your observances. They are idiosyncratic and so well considered,” she replied. She was able to articulate what I really aspire to as a Jew — it’s not just about reflection and about discussion, but above all about individual decisions that create meaning, that enforce a sense of right and wrong. The support of a community is helpful in doing this, but Yom Kippur reminds us that as Jews, sometimes we have to make these choices for ourselves, on our own.
Teshuvah, prayer (tefilla) and charity (tzedakah) are the three pillars of the High Holy Days. Teshuvah is usually translated as “atonement,” and relates to the period’s emphasis on repentance and forgiveness. But it literally means return, or coming home. Yom Kippur is an opportunity for me to make myself at home in my religion, not as a member of my family or larger community, but as an individual Jew.
Caroline Sydney is a senior in Silliman College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .