When your synagogue attendance can only be described as sporadic, a few panicked thoughts and pangs of regret enter your mind as you step into shul for Rosh Hashanah services. These include, but are not limited to: 1.) I should have volunteered to teach Torah for Tots because they get to eat apples and honey and speak English 2.) My new year’s resolution is to kiss up to the rabbi’s secretary, so we don’t get these nosebleed seat assignments again 3.) I hope people think I look pretty in my new dress.
The latter of these concerns is also the most emotionally complex; it is as fraught with hang-ups as a kugel is with raisins. Rosh Hashanah is my favorite Jewish holiday. I love the time I spend with my family, celebrating the New Year and the act of tashlich, symbolically casting off my sins. Unfortunately, while I treasure these aspects of Rosh Hashanah, the act of attending my childhood synagogue has become a neurotic fashion show of my insecurities.
That’s not meant to be a convoluted psychotic metaphor. Rosh Hashanah has actually become a personal fashion show whenever I return to the synagogue of my youth. I’ve known what I am wearing to this year’s Rosh Hashanah services (on Monday, September 17) since early July. As soon as I tried on this dress all those months ago, I knew it would be the perfect thing to wear. It flatters my figure, but is still modest. Essentially, it conveys to my fellow congregants that I’m an attractive, confident, put-together young woman. Or so I hope. But why do I put so much thought into clothes during a holiday that is meant to be spent making resolutions to better myself, reflecting on my sins and, above all, being grateful to God for blessing me with another year with my loved ones?
We all have our own emotional landmines that evoke the painful, awkward memories of childhood and adolescence. To spare you the details, I was the overweight, quiet kid in a Hebrew school classroom with girls who knew how to wear a Juicy Couture tracksuit with pizzazz and never invited me to their bat mitzvahs. Eventually I grew up, discovered welcoming Jewish communities in college and young adulthood, and realized pastel velour tracksuits had a limited shelf life. Still, the moment I visit my childhood synagogue, the insecurities come rushing back.
I belong to an upper middle-class suburban synagogue filled with generally well-off congregants, so as much as I hate to admit this, I feel pressure to wear stylish clothes and maintain a certain weight. Since many of us only see each other once a year, this stress intensifies. Indeed, High Holiday Jews have precious few opportunities to show off their figures, clothes and lives.
I’d love to say that I am above the pressure, but all it takes is one glimpse at my peers’ tight black pencil skirts and patent leather stilettos to realize that my heels are too flat and my dress has too much color. And just like that, I’ve become the fat girl from Mrs. Gilad’s fifth grade class all over again.
But worse, I become superficial and self-absorbed in a way that I find repulsive in general, let alone completely against the spirit and purpose of davening on Rosh Hashanah. I feel guilty that as I look at my fellow congregants and rise to hear the Shofar, I am filled with thoughts about my own physical appearance. I know these are not the concerns that should be occupying my mind on a precious day when I should be casting off my sins and celebrating with my loved ones. Yet it is hard keeping the self-centered, trivial thoughts away from my prayers.
Sometimes, I wish we all wore the same thing to synagogue. Just as school uniforms are often praised for thwarting unnecessary distractions and diffusing materialistic competitions, a uniform fashion for shul could do the same. However, I know that’s a bad idea, and not only because uniforms, as a rule, are highly unflattering. If I can’t control my own petty insecurities to focus on God, my gratitude and my desire to improve myself, then my bat mitzvah — my passage into Jewish adulthood — was meaningless.
This Rosh Hashanah, I know I will encounter the same girls and feel this superficial shame creeping up on me. But it’s my new year’s resolution to keep it in check — and maybe steal a few slices of apple and honey.