Kol Nidrei: “All the vows, oaths and promises of this year broken and shattered beside us.” These words, recited only once a year, remind us that so much in life does not turn out as we planned.
There was nothing progressive or egalitarian about the Orthodox family in which I grew up. My mother was in charge of all things food and home related. She started shopping, baking and cooking for the Sabbath on Wednesdays, and weeks before the holidays she would begin preparing delicacies for our large extended family and friends. I still smell the dough as she works her hands to knead homemade challah on our counter. I watch as she scrubs the floors, or irons a dress shirt for one of my brothers. She works so hard that I remember thinking: “Does she enjoying staying up late around a holiday table with family and friends? Or is the work of it all a burden?”
Yet she is indefatigable, up early on the morning of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, making sure we have the requisite snacks and toys as we head out for a long morning of synagogue with my father. He is there, too, in the memory bank. I hear his voice as clearly as if he were in the next room, practicing the prayers of the High Holiday machzor in preparation to lead High Holiday services at our synagogue. (Those melodies are still a source of comfort,— not because they are beckoning me toward God and a return to our essential goodness, but because they remind me of my father’s soft but powerful voice.)
I admire the home, marriage and life my parents built. As I came of age, however, I became certain that my family and life would be different. I — a feminist with egalitarian leanings, a Conservative rabbi and lesbian with a partner who is a Jew by choice — couldn’t imagine it any other way. And yet, despite all this, our friends joke that we have the most 1950s marriage they have ever seen.
I do almost all the domestic work, including the cooking, the cleaning and the day-to-day minding of our 3-year-old twins. She, my incredibly hard-working partner, is a cancer surgeon, and her time belongs not to her, or even to us, but to her patients, to cancer, to the operating room. And so while she gives people time, I give our family a sense of order and purpose. Like my mother, I bake all the challot and clean all the floors. I do every load of laundry, make sure our children have clothes to go to synagogue in each week, and teach them the words of the Sh’ma and the blessings for food and drink.
I used to look at relationships like mine and judge them, sure that the chain to the kitchen and the cleaning closet meant oppression and unbearable exhaustion. No way I would cook and bake every single thing we eat, nor would I wash every floor and dish. No, the value of my work would be from a bimah or a classroom, not from a kitchen.
Kol Nidrei. It reminds us to let go of the life we promised ourselves and pay attention to the one we are living.
Here’s the thing about Judaism: We aren’t just supposed to learn its lessons and values; we also have to find a way to embed these lessons and values in our children. I love my work as a rabbi, but I am not responsible for only Torah and the Jewish people; I am also responsible for the well-being, growth, safety and Jewish life of two precious souls that are my children. And it is work, a lot of it, but as my memories teach me, Jewish life requires an incredible amount of hard labor. Not only was my mom making dinner, she was also making meaning. This is what drives and guides all I am as an ima — a mom — a partner and a rabbi. Over the years, broken promises of a more egalitarian relationship became truths of beauty and balance in a life that we have proudly created together. We are teaching our children what it means to approach one’s life with passion, and that there are many ways to do work, sacred and otherwise.
Ironically, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the two holidays during which I take a back seat at home. I have a High Holiday pulpit, and so this time of year I find myself lost in words of Torah and inspiration while my partner is busy at home. She makes meals, does the dishes and reads our children stories about the shofar and the act of apologizing. Following our dinner on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, I will likely be retiring to the couch to get some rest and to review my sermon for the next day. I’ll be lost in inspiration and meaning, while my partner readies the house and the children for the Days of Awe.
I will be grateful for the work of sacred community building that I get to do, and joyous that my partner has the chance to do the sacred work of embedding memories in the hearts of our children. I’ll also look forward to resuming my usual role after the holidays are over.
Elianna Yolkut, a Conservative rabbi, lives with her partner and their young twins in Washington D.C.