How can it be, you might ask, that such a travesty came to pass? How is it, I mean, that a woman like me, born and bred of preening Orthodox German-Jewish stock, came one evening two years ago to usher in Yom Kippur, the Holiest of Holy Days, in the most faithless way imaginable: by having a manicure and pedicure at Iris Nails on the Upper East Side?
You might ask, that is, if this were the beginning of an old-fashioned story by S.Y. Agnon, say, or Sholom Aleichem, one that had never been exposed to those newfangled and profane literary influences that do away with all meaning, much less a divine purpose. The kind of story that always includes a busybody or two — professional meddlers in the detritus of other people’s lives — whose ordained narrative purpose is to stand around the town square, alive with the sounds of peddlers hawking and chickens squawking, the better to discuss the latest shanda, a piece of news that would set your mother’s ears on fire. Such sorrows shouldn’t happen to a dog, they would undoubtedly cluck — if they happened to get wind of the tale I am about to recount — much less to a family of noble standing such as hers. To fall from such heights to such depths, all in a moment’s undoing! Better you should excuse yourself than read on.
My own sordid little history is set in a traffic-ridden 21st-century city where anonymity is assured, rather than in a tiny, 19th-century shtetl where village gossips held sway. No one would chance to know of my brazen flouting of basic religious etiquette except for the fact that I feel compelled to reveal it now as another Yom Kippur approaches. Think of it as a form of belated penance, disguised as a shameless confessional performance. S’lach loh-nu, m’chal loh-nu, kahper loh-nu. Forgive us, Pardon us, Grant us atonement.
It was, I suppose, a piece of exquisite, fashionably postmodernist irony waiting to happen, the unforeseen and inconclusive resolution of years of wondering about how, or even whether, I fit into the larger Jewish picture, such as it is, now that the czars have been overthrown and girls walk around with their navels showing.
Then again, you could conclude that my having decided to opt for a set of shiny toenails over the chance to burnish my soul demonstrated just how hopelessly tarnished a soul I was stuck with. Or, even worse, it attested to nothing more profound than my inability to pace myself accurately, to ever be on time for anything — even Kol Nidre. I mean, it is theoretically possible to see to both the needs of the body and the soul without overlooking either, if one schedules these things accordingly. It’s not like every frume Sarah wears whiskers on her chin or soiled cuffs on her blouses. But I was always running late, always wildly cramming three plans into two, and why should this night, if I may mix my yontiv metaphors and borrow from the Passover Haggada, be different from all other nights? Why, indeed, even if erev Yom Kippur happened to be the Ur-night of soul-wrestling, the calendrical moment designated for coaxing and flattering and altogether finagling your way into good standing in God’s annual ledger?
So there I sat in Iris Nails on that Friday evening in September as the hands on the oversized wall clock moved inexorably forward and the shadows outside lengthened, paging through a month-old copy of Vogue, waiting for my toes — freshly lacquered in some subtle shade with a coy name like Allure or Delicacy, some imperceptible variation upon the same basic pale pink theme — to dry.
All around me for the past two hours the salon had been emptying out of its devoutly assimilated Jewish clientele, women with toned bodies and cosmetically altered faces who just minutes earlier had been on their cell phones busily discussing their various plans for breaking the forthcoming fast. One coiffed woman was expecting 40 for dinner the next night, and worried whether she had enough dessert plates; another described her less ambitious scheme to order takeout for her family. I sat there and eavesdropped disapprovingly, a spy in the House of Iris, wondering whether any of these women were real Jews — Jews like me — and knew enough not to wear their highfalutin designer pumps to shul (the wearing of leather being one of the holiday’s prohibitions) or whether they had just jumped on to the newly fashionable ethnic bandwagon.
Did they understand, for instance, that it was crucial to be on time for Kol Nidre, that only the religiously ignorant and the hopelessly vainglorious sashayed into synagogue after the service had begun? This lesson had been conveyed to me in my girlhood, and I, in my turn, had repeatedly impressed its importance on my adolescent daughter for the past two days, reminding her to be ready to leave in her sneakers and shul clothes by 6:10, 6:10 sharp. I’m not coming late to Kol Nidre, I warned her. If you’re not ready, I’m going without you.
It was now 11 minutes past 6. Twenty blocks away the same chazan who had serenaded me 15 years earlier as I stood under the chupah (how was he to know that the marriage was misconceived and would be over in a few years, a minor blot on the golden record of family ceremonies at which he has continued to officiate?) was about to commence with the solemn prayer that announces the start of the 24-hour fast. What on earth was I thinking? Here I had been alerting my daughter to this defining Jewish moment as though it meant something to me and by extension should to her, and now I was keeping her cooling her sneaker-shod heels while I sat in admiring contemplation of my toes.
I had to get out of there fast. I gestured wildly to the shy young woman who had plied her fine-tuned, underpaid skills for the past two hours, trying to communicate some sense of urgency in spite of the fact that I appeared to have all the time in the world. My faith was on the line, but how was she to understand my predicament if I myself couldn’t figure out how I had managed to arrange my life in such a fashion that more than four decades of roiling conflict about Jewishness had come to a head right here in Iris Nails? On the one side were the hallowed claims of a patriarchal religion presided over by a grim and reclusive (and needless to say, male) God, who couldn’t be expected to understand the significance of socioeconomic factors in the formation of one’s approach to shul-going: What did He care if I associated Yom Kippur with the incongruously glamorous, often newly Judaicized wives of the congregation’s multiple tycoons who showed up in the front row of the women’s balcony only for the High Holy Days and then disappeared into their brilliantly secular lives? On the other side was my feminine instinct to compete with these same buffed and lacquered women who occupied the balcony section of the synagogue from my childhood, which I still frequented, not out of any deep conviction or even a commendable sense of loyalty (I disliked the place as much as an adult as I had as a child) but out of an inability to figure out where else I might convincingly claim a seat.
I may as well admit, for the record, that I didn’t make much effort at speeding things up. I had seen customers in a hurry get their freshly done toes saran-wrapped for extra buffering before putting on their footwear, but I wasn’t willing to risk messing up the polish. Besides which, even I could figure out that there was no way I could get home, dressed, and be at shul all within the next 15 minutes. And who was He (if He, indeed, existed) to me, when it came right down to it, that I should be rushing myself for Him? Hadn’t I tried to find a religious footing for myself all these years, with a degree of good faith that had included my taking private Talmud lessons in the hopes that I might find some sort of locution for myself in the disputatious language of the Gemara. In the Jewish high school I attended, I had always warmed to the abstract reasoning of the Talmud over the picturesque but pedantic tales that we studied in my Chumash classes. The cerebral sparks given off by the various commentators with their differing interpretations of a particular phrase reminded me of the splitting of semantic hairs that I found so intriguing in the analyses of literary texts. But none of this could keep me from scrambling around wildly in my head, hurling accusations at myself for failing to provide a role model for my daughter, failing to provide a role model for myself, failing, failing, failing at the Jewish thing.
Iris Nails is a prettier salon than many, mind you, and priced accordingly. It’s not one of those fly-by-night affairs that tend to dot the urban landscape, put together with spit and quick-dry, a freebie wall calendar with photos of kittens adorning the cheaply painted walls in lieu of interior décor. No, this is a plush oasis of a nail salon, replete with a crystal chandelier. The stations of the manicurists are set luxuriously far apart and there is a sparkling, peach-toned Italianate landscape painted quite convincingly on the walls so that if you half-close your eyes and shut your ears to the indecipherable chatter of the Korean staff, you can imagine yourself on a sun-splashed terrazzo.
These incidental details matter, if you are ever to get the setting for this tale of divided loyalties and split identities more or less straight in your mind. If Iris Nails had been a less appealing place, for instance, instead of representing a sanctuary of sorts, a haven in a heartless world, perhaps I would have lingered less among the shy manicurists, the soft lighting and the trompe l’oeil Mediterranean backdrop. But as it was, I couldn’t bring myself to leave this refuge in the midst of the gleamingly impersonal city I had grown up in, a city in which I had always felt spiritually homeless. And so I sat on, in my padded chair with the buttons that enabled you to get a heated back massage while reclining, immobilized by the comforting atmosphere of the salon and by my consuming ambivalence over Judaism — an ambivalence that led me to judge other Jews by my own lapsed Orthodox standards, as though I were a rebbetzin in disguise, even as I indulged in pork-filled Szechuan dumplings. It drove my daughter mad, the way I kept a foot guiltily in both camps, and tonight’s behavior would only further the crazed confusion.
Perhaps, too, if I had ever succeeded in finding a shul that spoke the language of home to me, instead of returning, lemming-like, year after year, to the affluent, snobbish congregation that had made me feel acutely uncomfortable ever since I had first stood in my imported hand-smocked Shabbos dress and black patent leather Shabbos shoes and gazed down at the men’s section where everything worth watching was taking place, things might have worked out differently. I wouldn’t have felt the dire need to paint my toenails at just that pre-Kol Nidre moment, for crying out loud, as though I were going to be inspected for trophy wife-level grooming standards before being allowed into the women’s section.
Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. As you can see, my Jewishness and I are a vexed pair from way back. It’s as though we got soldered together when I was still young and impressionable and now I’m doomed to drag this ancient, sober-minded religion through the rest of my life, like a giant ball and chain clanking behind me, seconding my every move. Wherever I goeth, my cumbersome Jewish shadow goeth; wherever I departeth, it departeth.
The problem with this kind of tortured relationship, as with all tortured relationships, is that at some point it is no longer possible to conceive of having any choice in the matter. Letting go seems just as self-evident a gesture as holding on. The worst part of it is that I’m caught between a sense of nostalgia for the idyllic, somewhat kitschy shtetl fantasy that I’ve always harbored — Friday night candles flickering on a snow-white tablecloth, like an image out of “Fiddler on the Roof,” signifying everything that is peaceful and heartfelt about Shabbos, the cozy warming chicken-soupness of it — and an equally strong sense of claustrophobia about the hidebound German-Jewish reality as I experienced it growing up: those Friday night candles once again, suggestive of everything that is repetitive and compulsively ritualized about Shabbos, the enforced matzo ball-eating idleness of it.
My Jewishness is further complicated by my blue-chip, Platinum Card credentials — otherwise known as yichus, otherwise known as lineage. Although I have never met a Jewish person, of however attenuated an identity, who didn’t in some flimsy fashion try to link him or herself up to an ancient towering sage like the Baal Shem Tov or Maimonides, I can lay claim to the Jewish equivalent of being able to connect your Wasp ancestry directly to the Mayflower. My family history has produced generations of great scholars and influential community leaders. This foamy bloodline comes to me on my mother’s side, which features various founding fathers of Modern Orthodox Judaism, including my great-great grandfather, Samson Raphael Hirsch, who paved the way for the unique approach to living in two competing worlds — the secular German one and the ritualized Jewish one (“Torah im derekh eretz”) — that characterized German Orthodoxy, and Hirsch’s grandson, my grandfather, Isaac Breuer, who, alone among his celebrated family, embraced the Zionist ideal when Israel was still only a gleam in the eye of Theodor Herzl.
My mother had been the only one of her immediate family, which included four siblings and their collective 24 children (the obligation to breed and multiply being one that the entire Breuer clan took to heart), to abandon a life of high principles and scant material comforts for a life of less obvious principles and visible affluence. Meanwhile, her qualms about leaving the fledgling State of Israel and modest lifestyle her father had embraced were played out on the vulnerable psyches of her children.
And yet I wonder, do one’s origins ever explain as much as they obfuscate? It all goes so far back that it would take a team of shrinks working overtime to figure out which complicated antecedent led to which tragicomic outcome. How can I ever get you to see it as it was for me, back then, a girl brought up on the de-ethnicized, churchgoing Upper East Side only to take her rightful place in a sleeping bag in the Sinai Desert? An unhappy, introspective girl raised on lullabies of hardy pioneers going up to Israel with pails and shovels, like intrepid toddlers in overalls, by a mother who had imbibed her adored father’s ideological commitment to the land, despite the fact that she herself had chosen to set up her life on Park Avenue, with no sign of a camel or a kibbutznik in sight.
The other major characterization of Jewishness that colored my childhood was the polar opposite of that triumphant Zionist image of strong Jews: the fate of being caught up in Hitler’s web. At an age when I was still too young to comprehend the historical evil of Nazism in any but the vaguest terms, I had a clear grasp of the way it had disrupted the natural course of my mother’s life, leading to two emigrations, one forced and one voluntary. It was because of the Nazis that in 1937 she had to leave behind her beloved Frankfurt with its famous zoo, which she had regularly visited on Shabbos afternoons, and immigrate to what was then Palestine together with her family. A decade later, in the wake of her father’s death, in her late 20s but not yet married, she left Israel for what was to have been a year abroad in New York to teach at the religious day school that was part of the thriving Washington Heights German-Jewish community established by her uncle Joseph Breuer (as fervent in his anti-Zionism as her father had been in his religious Zionism) after he had fled Frankfurt.
Early in her stay, at one of those dinner parties expressly designed for matchmaking purposes that people used to be in the habit of giving, my mother was introduced to my father, an Orthodox bachelor of long standing and fellow yekke (as Eastern European Jews referred to their haughty German counterparts with an uneasy mixture of admiration and disdain). After a stop-and-start courtship, befitting a man and woman who had resisted the lure of matrimony until the ripe ages of 42 and 30, respectively, they married on the roof of the St. Regis Hotel and produced six children in rapid succession. My parents spoke to each other mostly in German, a language which always makes me think of swastikas, and gave off a general air of living where they did only under sufferance, since it was all too obvious that America and its silly Orthodox Jews with their casual ways couldn’t hold a candle to the old-world restraint and formality of their lost communities.
What all this percolated down to was a childhood bombarded by more mixed messages about what it meant to be an authentically Jewish person than you could juggle with three hands. For one thing, I was given the sort of predictably schizophrenic amalgam of social mores and moral guidelines that Modern Orthodox Jewish girls are heir to, stemming from the vast and uncrossable gulf between traditional ideals of modesty, purity and imminent wifeliness/helpmeetness on the one hand, and the brutal realities of the contemporary dating marketplace and current expectations of female self-definition on the other. To get a sense of the confused atmosphere, you have only to stand outside a Jewish day school like the one I went to on the Upper East Side and watch the girls emerge in clothes that are maximally revealing while being at the same time appropriately unscanty — an aesthetic approach most typically characterized by the long, tight denim skirts that are usually slit halfway up the back or side and look difficult to navigate without resorting to the kind of mincing steps that I imagine Chinese women with bound feet were forced to adopt.
But the messages we received in my immediate family about being properly Jewish went well beyond this in scope, covering every aspect of our presentation to a watchful world. This externalized aspect, bewilderingly enough, was what seemed to count most both for my mother and for the shulon the Upper East Side that my father had helped found and over which he had presided through four decades. Although religious belief was presumably a manifestation of your inner life, Judaism struck me as a resolutely social institution, more about group behavior than private wranglings with God or faith. No one, it seemed, gave a damn whether or not you sinned in your soul, or hated in your heart or fantasized about group sex in the middle of the rabbi’s sermon. Primitive convictions about the transparency of your spiritual failings was fine for Southern born-again types like Jimmy Carter, who confessed to Playboy that he had lusted in his heart. Jews — Jews like us — were more sophisticated than that.
Which meant that in my family there was barely any mention of God and none at all regarding vicissitudes of belief. The German approach emphasized rules and more rules — as well as the solemn aesthetic context surrounding their observance, the beautification of ritual that is referred to as hiddur mitzvah. My mother was particularly proud of this aspect of her upbringing, and it undoubtedly added something to our Friday evenings that your average Friday evening in non-yekke homes did not have: The table was beautifully set, flowers abounded and we got dressed in Shabbos clothes, no lounging about in robes or sweatpants as I saw my friends do. But with so much stress on form, I began to lose sight of the priorities — whether it was more important that I look good (which meant Wasp good, as in understated, not too much makeup, certainly no red nail polish) or pay attention to the davening, or whether the most important thing of all was that I got to shul on time and didn’t meander in when services were almost over.
I came home close to 7 that evening. My pedicure had dried, Kol Nidre was well under way and I immediately broke into tears. I insisted to my somewhat bewildered daughter that it was now irrevocably too late to go to shul — too late for Jews like us, who knew better. Mine was the emotionally dissonant (and perhaps unfathomable) logic of a lapsed Orthodox Jew. Confronted by the gap between my adult disregard for the unbending religious approach of my childhood and the powerful nostalgia invoked in me by memories of rituals scrupulously observed, I froze in my tracks. Even if I no longer believed in the letter of the law, I just as strongly believed that there was only one right way to keep the law — if, that is, you were going to bother at all.
My daughter is a wise soul and I like to think she understands that my abiding sense of conflict speaks to some sort of passion, a connection rather than a severance. How else to explain my perplexing behavior that evening and on to the following day, when I attended shul from late morning until the end of the fast, barely lifting my head from the machzor, like a person in a trance.
Perhaps it will suffice to note that I am a woman haunted by my past, and that in the present time in which we are all required to live, willy-nilly, ready or not, I have never been able to locate my inner Jew. Nothing in my experience of religious life then or now has clarified for me in what, exactly, the Platonic essence of Jewishness — its internal content as opposed to its outer form — resides. And yet I continue to hope it is there, a shimmering and sacrosanct kernel that got lost somewhere between Iris Nails and Yom Kippur.
Daphne Merkin is the author of “Enchantment,” a novel (HBJ, 1986), and “Dreaming of Hitler” (Harvest, 1999), a collection of essays. Her writing has appeared in leading publications including The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. She currently writes a regular column for Elle about books and culture.
The above essay is excerpted from “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt,” edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson. Copyright © 2005 by Daphne Merkin. Used by arrangement with Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.