Groucho Marx liked to tell the story of two friends, a philanthropist and a hunchback, who were walking down the street one day when they passed a synagogue.
The philanthropist, a worldly man, said, “You know I used to be a Jew.” “Really,” his friend replied. “I used to be a hunchback.”
Which sums up, more or less, the predicament of being one of the chosen people. The choice is not yours.
… I went to school in Cho-medey in the late 1960s, where Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were the Judaic equivalent of snow days. Although officially part of the Protestant School Board, my elementary and high school were almost entirely Jewish. They didn’t close for the High Holidays, but they were virtual ghost towns.
Ironically, it was the gentile kids who really looked forward to our holidays. Wayne Syvret, a friend from those days, remembers going to school as “almost like being on vacation.”
“Occasionally, a teacher would attempt to do something educational, but there was no point. Mostly we played board games or sports,” Syvret recalls. “I’m sure we had more fun than you did.”
Admittedly, it would have been hard not to. When I wasn’t fasting or going for long walks – no TV or board games or sports – I was in synagogue, trying my best to stay awake. Back then, awesome wasn’t the word I would have chosen to describe the Days of Awe.
Ronnie Fine, the rabbi at the Chabad House on Queen Mary Rd., acknowledges that boredom is an issue. “No question if someone is coming into synagogue once or twice a year and it’s a place they don’t feel comfortable, they are at some point going to get bored,” he says.
The trouble is this isn’t the time to be going through the motions. So Fine came up with a primer he calls The High Holiday Survival Course: Turning the High Holidays into a Life Changing Experience. (Free sessions are being held at Chabad Queen Mary the next two Tuesday evenings.)
“Our approach is participaction, as Canadians call it,” Fine adds. His Survival Course helps people understand the prayers and songs better, and feel comfortable about being part of the service. But there’s more.
“The High Holidays are really about connection to your maker. That’s a very personal thing. Even though you have a structured prayer book and service, you also have to personalize it. That means understanding why these holidays matter to you.”
In particular, understanding that this is an opportunity to renew your relationship with God, Fine says. “It’s realizing you’ve done things in the past that were not good for this relationship. Now you have a chance to start anew, make things better. That’s a very powerful way to look at the High Holidays.”
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As I am getting off the phone with Fine, he invites me to his Survival Course and his High Holiday service. I change the subject. A little later, he emails me a holiday-related video and a newsletter. Then a woman from Chabad Queen Mary calls to politely follow up. Will I be attending their service?
I decline, though, to be honest, I’m tempted. God knows, I could do with some instruction and reflection on how to be a better Jew, not to mention a better person. Who couldn’t?
This is the unique opportunity the High Holidays provide, according to Michael Wex. Wex is the author of the 2005 bestseller Born to Kvetch and his new book, How to be a Mentsh (& Not a Shmuck), is a user-friendly guide to making yourself a better person.
Which is exactly what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur intend us to work on, according to Wex.
“It’s when you account for your behaviour over the previous year and evaluate your conduct,” he says from his publisher’s office in Toronto. “That’s real mentsh-hood: being able to see that shmucky thing you shouldn’t do coming and learn how to avoid doing it.”
Unfortunately, these holidays tend to bring out my shmucky side. Or maybe it’s just that I have my own holiday rituals to uphold. I will fast on Yom Kippur and I will complain about it. I’ll complain incessantly. Born to Kvetch, indeed.
“This is no picnic, let me tell you,” I’ll say to my wife, Cynthia, who’s infinitely more spiritual than I am, but who doesn’t fast.
“So then explain it to me again: why do it?” she’ll say.
That’s not entirely true. In part, it is superstition. I am, after all, an atheist who is, nevertheless, convinced God is out to get me.
I also fast because of tradition. My father did it and my grandfather and, no doubt, so did all my forefathers and mothers. This Yom Kippur I may even try, despite my ambivalence, to convince my 10-year-old son Jonah to skip breakfast. Still when he asks why, it might be nice to have a clue.
Cluelessness is one explanation for writer David Plotz‘s decision to devote a year to reading the Old Testament. Plotz, editor of the online magazine Slate, recounts the experience in his very funny and smart book Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible.
Early in Good Book, Plotz describes himself as “a do-nothing Jew who believed in God.” But not long after he begins reading the Old Testament, he realizes things are turning around. He finds himself “practicing my Judaism but doubting in God.”
In The Year of Living Biblically, author A.J. Jacobs ups the ante. He doesn’t just read the Bible, he lives it. The book’s subtitle – One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible – sums up his intriguingly screwball plan.
An editor at Esquire, Jacobs grows his beard long, dons white robes, and does his best not to lie, steal, or gossip. He also wanders through Central Park looking for an adulterer to stone – with pebbles.
For both Plotz and Jacobs, the experiments were illuminating; they also inevitably wore off. Jacobs shaved his beard and returned to being Jewish “in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant.”
Meanwhile, Plotz says he will fast on Yom Kippur, though he’s not sure why. “I don’t know who I am doing it for,” he tells me from Slate’s office in Washington D.C. “It’s an act of discipline, self-reflection.”
And perhaps this is the purpose the High Holidays serve for a lot of us. An annual, valuable reminder that we’re Jewish, just in case what it means to be Jewish is starting to wear off.
At least, that’s the message I took from Good Book and The Year of Living Biblically. And also, I’m surprised to admit, from talking with Rabbi Fine. He believes what’s special about the High Holidays is that something about them calls to us no matter how unobservant we may be. And no matter how much we kvetch about them.
“Maybe the person who is very distant from his Jewishness says to himself, ‘Today is Yom Kippur and I need to go to synagogue, I need to participate,’ ” Fine explains.
That person, according to Fine, is not doing any of this because of peer pressure or ritual or superstition or any other reason. He’s just looking for the place he belongs.
“Where does that come from? It comes because he has a Jewish soul and because on that day, that holy day, the soul is elevated and senses a need. There is something inside that says, ‘I am a Jew,’ and you have to express that in some way.”
Which makes sense to me, I’m once again surprised to admit. In fact, Groucho Marx couldn’t have said it better.