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Low Holy Days

It was hot in the sanctuary. My feet hurt in their high-heeled shoes, and I wondered when the prayer would end so that I could sit down.

It had been three weeks since my conversion to Judaism on 22 Elul 5761 (August 30, 2002), and immediately following it had come the period of the High Holy Days. As I understood it, these were the pivotal, holy moments on the Jewish calendar when the prayers and rituals that form the core of Jewish religious identity encourage us to carefully scrutinize all aspects of life. As a community, we confess our sins, examine our shortcomings, and pray that our acts of teshuva, tefila, and tzedakah (repentance, prayer, and charity) will enable us to live and flourish.

And so I stood on the night of Kol Nidre in our temple, doing my best to follow along in the unfamiliar prayer book--Gates of Repentence--so different from the familiar gray Gates of Prayer that I had followed and studied in the period leading up to my conversion. My limited knowledge of Hebrew did not enable me to untangle the letters on the page, or understand what exactly was taking place during the Al Chet, the recitation of the 44 sins or misdeeds committed by the community as a whole during the past year.

Even though I knew I should have been paying attention to what was taking place on the bimah, I looked around at the hundreds of people in the sanctuary--more than I had ever seen at a Friday night Shabbat service. All around me stood families--young couples and parents with children, older men and women with their children and grandchildren. It looked to me like all the generations at Sinai, standing together.

And I was alone. No parent, no husband, no child stood by my side. I could hear the music of the liturgy swirling through the sanctuary, and the murmurs of prayer rising into the air. All around me people stood in their best fall clothes, with the men in their beautiful white prayer shawls, looking like brothers. I stood with my back starting to hurt and my shoes tightening around my feet, wanting to understand, feeling completely ignorant. I felt as if everyone around me was related to one another, except for me.

When I met Claude, I was sure that things would be different. He was smart, kind, compassionate, well read. He cared deeply about being Jewish, and was active in the Young Leadership group at his local Jewish Community Center. As the son of German-Jewish parents who fled the Nazis in the 1930's, he loved that I worked at the Museum of Jewish Heritage--A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City, and seemed fascinated by the fact that I had chosen Judaism. We confessed to one another that we had both uttered a Shehechiyanu (blessing for firsts) after our first date. In short, he was the Jewish partner I had always hoped for.

When the High Holy Days rolled around again, I had expected him to attend the three days of services with me, for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And I looked forward to having the sense that I finally belonged, that I was finally part of a Jewish family.

But during the year that had passed, several issues had come up. First, although he attended Friday night Shabbat services with me from time to time, he was uncomfortable with the Reform liturgy that had changed since he had been active in his temple as a teenager. He missed the prayers he had grown up saying in English, and seemed befuddled by the way our congregation included the matriarchs in our egalitarian prayers. In answer to so many of my questions, his response was, "We did things differently."

His parents, though always kind and thoughtful in their conversations with me about their Jewish heritage, also had some unexpected opinions. They both took enormous pride in being Jewish and having survived to escape Hitler. They had taken Claude to Israel twice, and brought him up with a very strong sense of what it meant to carry on the legacy of the family members they had lost in the Holocaust.

But they didn't approve of me wearing a Star of David, or of the mezuzah that I had lovingly affixed to my doorway. Having grown up in a place where being Jewish meant that one lived in fear and terror, they thought it was "safer" not to draw attention to one's religious identity. Also, since their marriage had dissolved amicably twenty years earlier, they led wonderfully independent, active lives. That meant, however, that the old rituals--celebrating the holidays, being affiliated with a congregation--had also ended.

So when Claude decided not to go to temple with me on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, I was hurt, but not surprised. His reasoning? He couldn't understand the Hebrew, he couldn't take the day off from work, and besides, his parents didn't feel it was necessary to go.

I realized that his family's ambivalence towards my expression of Judaism came from a very real place. But it troubled me that as a Jew-by-choice, I had moved towards Jewish life, while it seemed to me that they, as born Jews, had moved away from it.

And so the High Holy Days came and went. Once again, I attended services alone. I found friends in my congregation to sit with, but at the end of the day there was still emptiness. I felt that everyone else had families and celebrations to go home to, and that there we were, going out for Chinese food or pizza, just like any other night.

So now that the High Holy Days are upon us again, I find myself faced with the same dilemma. But this year, a couple of things have changed.

Over the course of the past year, I became even more active in my congregation. I trained to become a Union for Reform Judaism Outreach Fellow, and work with several people who are in the process of converting to Judaism. This has given me the opportunity to create a community of people who are choosing Judaism, and we get together not only to talk and share, but also to learn and socialize.

Also, I attend our temple's Saturday morning Torah study, where I have made great friends who have helped me feel completely at home with both congregational life and my choice to embrace Judaism. The unfamiliar faces of a few years ago are now friends who have invited me for holidays, taught me to cook, and shared sacred moments of learning and community.

As for Claude, we are working together to find a level of comfort for both of us to be happy in the Jewish life we are creating. It is by no means easy, but as we work together we try to remember that Judaism was something that brought us together, and it shouldn't be the thing that tears us apart.

And so, in a couple of weeks, I will probably be on my own at services again. But this time it will be different, because I know that now, instead of thinking that I am completely alone, I have truly become part of the family.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Known in Hebrew as "magen David" (literally," shield of David"), it is more commonly recognized as the star of David, a six-point star. The symbol has origins in the Torah, and has been used as a symbol of Jewish identity and Judaism in Europe since the Middle Ages. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Aramaic for "all vows," the opening words and name of the first prayer that begins the evening service on Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre has come to refer to the name of the evening service itself. Hebrew for "righteousness," it usually means "charity" or "righteous giving." In Judaism, it refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just, including giving to those in need. Hebrew for "doorpost," it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "return," the way of repenting for sins in Judaism. The term is most associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Andi Rosenthal

Andi Rosenthal is a convert to Judaism, marketing director and freelance writer living in Larchmont, N.Y. She is a URJ Schindler Outreach Fellow and frequently lectures and teaches about issues relating to interfaith life. She also recently completed her first novel, The Bookseller's Sonnets.

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