My Year of Living Jewishly
“Did it change you?”
That’s what people ask me, those who have followed this year of holiday reporting — my first foray into the complete Jewish calendar.
The answer is yes. And no.
Yes, because I now understand the substructures of every holiday — ancient and modern, mournful and exultant.
No, because I’m not rushing to fast six times again.
Yes, because the mindfulness it incited — an unexpected wakefulness — made me look harder at every priority, every relationship, time itself.
No, because I still get restless in long services.
Yes, because I now see the point of rituals I used to think were pointless.
No, because I still don’t see the point of many rituals.
Yes, because I was educated and encouraged by so many rabbis and paths to worship.
No, because I was happy (even relieved) to come home to my own.
After observing 18 holidays (actually, 21, but 18 is Jewishly neater) and writing 29 pieces (two about Shabbat) in which I quoted 44 rabbis and interviewed 30, plus 20 non-rabbis (writers, educators, etc.), I am moved, more than anything, by what our tradition imposes: Moments of intermission.
A demand to reach others in trouble. The rope pulling the ancient into today.
The reality is that most Jews in the world don’t observe every single holiday. I was new to the entire cycle myself. And though I cannot declare it to be life changing, I can say it was mind shifting.
Something intensifies. Like when my eye doctor gives me option “1 or 2” when he sets my eyeglass prescription, I suddenly saw option 2. The Jewish schedule heightened the stakes somehow -— reminding me repeatedly how precarious life is; how impatient our tradition is with complacency; how obligated we are to aid those with less; how lucky we are to have so much food, so much history, so much family.
I was honestly, maybe saccharinely, moved by mundanity itself — and its simplest joys — more than ever before. The small stuff got sweeter — in my normal, non-religious life: The way my daughter and son talk to each other when they don’t know I can hear them. The way something tastes after a fast. The sight of a delivery guy loaded with bags on his bicycle. My baby sitter’s loss of her brother in Trinidad. The ease of having my college friends at one table. I marked more. Paid attention. Lingered longer.
The holidays also made me feel sadder for the suffering. How many times in the Jewish cycle are we asked to remember those struggling? On Yom Kippur, on Sukkot, on Purim, Passover and all six fasts. It’s like a drumbeat of compassion: What are you going to do about those who are stuck, sad or starving?
Finally, there’s an arc to the seasons that interconnects them all — more sensibly, powerfully, provocatively than I’d realized. I hadn’t known the tie between Passover (when we were rescued), Shavuot (when we arrived at Sinai) and Sukkot (when we wandered before the Promised Land). Or the marriage metaphors — where on Passover, God loved us and saved us; on Shavuot we received the ketubah, the contract; on Sukkot we meet under the canopy, and on Simchat Torah we dance at our wedding, circling as couples do.
I felt carried through the year — in a sort of insistent current that calls all boats to the same port at the same time. That sense of concurrence was dramatic. We all showed up together. We all slowed down together.
And even though I failed at the most important holiday of all, Shabbat, (I couldn’t turn off all devices, no matter how many rabbis urged me to try,), I still managed to pause differently.
My head still spins with all the teachings (the interpretations are bottomless), but if I had to distill one flashpoint from each of the 21 holidays, it would be these:
Elul: During the 40 days of introspection leading to Yom Kippur, I won’t forget the discipline of daily self-examination. It changed atonement, because by the time I got there I had already seen myself starkly; there was no shock in it. Which was better. It’s better to have prepared to denude yourself. And the shofar blast that Elul requires each dawn of the 40 days was, to me, the sound of both history and urgency.
Rosh Hashanah: The Unetane Tokef prayer (“…who will live and who will die…”) was suddenly prescient and blindingly factual. People died in every way on the list. By fire and by stoning. By water, sword and plague.
The Fast of Gedaliah: Marking the assassination of the Jewish general who was viewed as a collaborator by his fellow Jews left me cold (and annoyed that I had to fast just days before The Really Big Fast). But I’ll remember the poignant suggestion that Gedaliah stand in for Yitzhak Rabin — another seismic Jew-on-Jew murder.
Yom Kippur: Made me wish that everyone knew it meant to prepare for death, because then we’d waste less life. Who wouldn’t make different choices if we knew this year were our last?
Sukkot: Spending it in Los Angeles made me see the harvest holiday less in terms of autumn corn husks and more in terms of California’s soft air. As for its meaning, the holiday packed almost too many themes, but each one of them resounded for me: Impermanence. Vulnerability. Wandering. Materialism. Earth.
Hoshana Rabbah: The obscure seventh day of Sukkot, when the lulav and etrog are waved wildly one last time. Who got the mystics’ memo that this is actually the deadline for atonement, not the night of Yom Kippur? We had an additional 11 days — after the gates closed — to try to get a better verdict. I could have used the extra time.
Shemini Atzeret: The eighth day of Sukkot is the hardest holiday for Jews of all stripes to explain clearly, because Sukkot is, by definition, seven days (so how can there be an eighth?), and because this holiday in Israel is conflated with Simchat Torah (the completion of the entire Torah reading for the year). I’ll try to forget the confusion and remember the touching message: God wants us to tarry one day longer after hanging with us in the sukkah for a week.
Simchat Torah: Dancing with the Torah (and the hordes) is a rapture I’ll nudge my friends to try with me this fall. It’s worth the humiliation (pre-gaming recommended). Who cares if this holiday is nowhere in the Torah? It was a great rabbinic invention, once the sages realized how psyched people were to finish one cycle of the entire story and start it all over again.
Hanukkah: I was like a gentile child discovering Santa isn’t real when I learned that this holiday is about Jews fighting Jews instead of Jews fighting mean Greeks. Okay, that’s an oversimplification of a really complicated ancient dispute, but suffice it to say that the Maccabees weren’t perfect, despite the fact that I dressed up as one at my childhood Hanukkah parties. I also loved this holiday’s menorah metaphors: adding light or subtracting it. It came at the time my father-in-law was sick, and I saw the light leaving, and the light — his family — remaining, keeping his memory aflame.
The Tenth of Tevet: The third fast (marking the siege of Jerusalem) fell on New Year’s Day, so I was hungry and hung over — not a great combination. That said, I was galvanized by the teaching that we don’t have to fast if we’re not in a time of persecution. While the jury is out as to whether we are, what’s clear is that we’re in a time of need. So we should help someone. And worry less about eating, for a change.
Tu B’Shevat: Our tradition seems to know when we need a shot of joy after melancholy, not to mention an infusion of spring during relentless winter. The “New Year of the Trees” was a welcome reminder in cold February that the earth is bountiful (albeit imperiled) and that our personalities resemble fruit. (Identify your personal pits and how they get in your way.)
The Fast of Esther: The fourth famishment (okay, that’s hyperbolic) came one day before Purim and made me revisit the moments when I’ve chickened out. Because Esther didn’t.
Purim: This holiday proved that Jackie Mason got it wrong: Gentiles aren’t the only drinkers. The scotch tasting on Purim was a boozy way to end a fast (we’re supposed to be so inebriated on Purim that we can’t tell friend from foe). It brought home that Jews like their wassail; recall the single malt of Simchat Torah, the four cups of wine on Tu B’Shevat and the four cups of Manischewitz on Passover.
Passover: This became for me a crowd-sourced roadmap to meaning; I offered up my own Haggadah-of-questions, and strangers wrote to me with their own homespun rituals. More than any holiday, the Seder seemed to inspire smart conversations — about today’s Egypts, for example, and our own complicity in them. And I returned, memorably, to my childhood’s third Seder, the feminist iteration, with its surviving creators.
Yom HaShoah: I will remember the low light in one sanctuary on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, as volunteer after volunteer strained to read endless names into the night. I’ll remember that I couldn’t see the list clearly enough to take part, despite reading glasses. The font was that small — presumably to fit the millions of names on page after page, representing family after family, country after country. The columns went on and on, and I felt guilty leaving to go to bed.
Yom HaZikaron Of all modern holidays, Israel’s Memorial Day felt the most distant to me — the marking of Israel’s fallen soldiers, or its victims of terrorism. I don’t know the wars’ casualties. I admire them from afar. I worry there have been too many and that there will be too many more. And I’ll remember bomb victim Marla Bennett, who died eating lunch in a Jerusalem cafeteria.
Yom Ha’atzmaut: Israel Independence Day. There’s no home ritual for this patriotic holiday, which may be why it’s little observed in America. One rabbi told me that “no Jewish holiday can survive without a table,” meaning we need a meal to mark things. Maybe our holidays falter without feasts or fasts. Or maybe this celebration has just been hindered by intransigent politics — with some Jews worrying about too much triumphalism, and others worrying there’s not enough.
Lag B’Omer: The 33rd of the 49 days we count between Passover and Shavuot (the giving of the Torah) might have felt more like a technicality than like a holiday, except I learned that it is, in no small measure, about respect. And respect clearly hung in the balance the week before, when, coincidentally, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on same-sex marriage. Which felt especially resonant to me on this holiday, because two close gay friends were planning to marry on the last day of the Omer.
Shavuot: Though I now know that this celebration of receiving The Law at Sinai was an invention of the rabbis (nowhere does the Bible link Sinai and Shavuot), I love any excuse for an all-night party of Jewish learning. Call me a study-nerd, but the marathon was worth the fatigue, and the cheesecake worth the calories.
The 17th of Tammuz: This fifth fast of the year (marking the breach of the walls of Jerusalem) was also ill-timed. Just as the 10th of Tevet followed New Year’s Eve, this fast fell the day after July 4. But one phone call with Elana Stein Hain, Director of Leadership Education for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, made the day matter. She identified a specific, sad gap — between a sure death and the inescapable route to it. The Jews in ancient Jerusalem knew they were surrounded and sure to perish, but they held on. So did my father-in-law as he faded in February. So now is my close young friend, staving off a cancer that continues to hound her.
Tisha B’Av: The final holiday, the final fast. I was moved that I’d made it to the proverbial finish line. And moved to think that it would soon be starting all over again. I was annoyed to fast at the height of summer, but more annoyed by my annoyance: Are you really going to complain about one day of discomfort given all the suffering it marks?
And then it was all over. There was no trumpet chorus, no shofar blast. And I knew there was no cause for fanfare. For some Jews, marking all these holidays is simply living life. But it felt important to have hit every mark, and emotional to look back on all the readings and conversations that expanded the experience. So many people helped, advised, spurred me on (or gave me a zets — that’s Yiddish for “poke”). So, “Did it change you?”
Yes. I understand now why the scaffolding of Judaism has held up Jews for centuries.
Yes. Understanding a holiday makes me more likely to observe it.
Yes. I saw how the generosity of teachers can deepen and heighten a tradition.
But it’s all still muddy territory.
My religion expanded for me. Not my religiosity.
I feel more prayerful now. But I don’t think I’ll pray more often. I let my kids and husband off the hook; I wish I had nudged them to join me more often.
My Hebrew still sucks, despite the valiant efforts of my tutor, Joel Goldman.
I sometimes hid behind my reporter hat — meaning I used the series to justify being a newcomer or interloper when I should have felt entitled to show up just because I was born Jewish. The fact is that most places welcome anyone, but it’s harder than I thought to feel at ease when everyone else belongs.
Whatever my regrets, I know this expedition has made me grip blessings tighter. Something about having to say thanks so many times a year brought home how thankful I should be. And how wasteful my obsessions and frustrations often are. Nearly every holiday amplifies not just a personal gratitude, but also a larger one…
…That a people survived: the siege, the breach, the burning, slavery, crusades, pogroms, camps, ambushes, bus bombs and kosher market attacks.
…That we get another day — not just to live more, but to love fiercely, too.
…That we gather repeatedly — to pound our chests in unison, eat in makeshift huts, cavort with Torahs, light menorahs, break matzo, read names or study into the dawn.
It’s been a watchful, demanding, imprinting, food-filled, food-deprived, remarkable year.
I won’t repeat it, but I won’t forget it.
And I’m sincerely grateful to those of you who came along.