I’m not really Jewish—I’m an honorary Jew. I got this honor for a couple of reasons, for which I’m grateful because the Jewish holidays are really cool. Of course, many people prefer the Christian holidays, because who gets gifts on Rosh Hashana, and truly, there’s nothing like a pile of presents under the Christmas tree to show love—Jesus did pretty well when he was born, but Madison Avenue’s Santa really made that holiday special.
As a kid, I wished I could share my holidays. The Jewish kids always had to come to school with a note to take off their holiday and they had to make up the work afterwards. No one gave us work to make up on Christmas and Easter. Just a pile of presents and a basket of candy awesomeness.
As a kid, I wouldn’t have liked Yom Kippur–instead of a holiday of candy awesomeness, you get to–let’s see–not eat for a day. That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. But as an adult, I understand it differently–a holiday to make things right with God and the world.
In fact, one of my best memories of the Jewish holidays was of Yom Kippur. A colleague of mine handed me a letter and walked away. He was a real writer—a true intellect prone to bouts of writer’s uniqueness. I opened the letter. It was the most beautiful letter ever—several pages of heartfelt words. I have never received such a letter before or since—not from anyone. I still have that letter—it was a letter of atonement.
The premise of Yom Kippur is that you should work to be a better person. You must consider the wrongs you have done, and seek forgiveness, and correct them. At the end of the day of prayer and fasting, you are once again inscribed in the book of life with the Almighty. It’s like Catholic penance, but it only comes once a year. I used to think that was convenient—we’d be spared the “how many sins could I have committed in one week at age ten” syndrome. I used to make up a bunch because I didn’t know what I did wrong, and then at the end I’d apologize for lying to cover the sin of making the up entire confession. Yom Kippur seemed a little simpler to me–one and done!
This Yom Kippur letter outlined times when my colleague was aloof or unkind to me, and in a heartfelt way he stated that he would have enjoyed hanging out and collaborating; that he should not have acted as he did. I would have been speechless—except I was too clueless to realize he’d been mean to begin with. I just thought he had a writer’s disposition.
To realize, “Nope, dummy, I really was awful. You were just too stupid or naïve to realize it” was probably worse than not having received the apology at all. Perhaps being too naïve or stupid would have saved me some pain in the long run. Either way, I granted instant forgiveness—I’m a sucker for heartfelt words and good grammar. Wish I got them more often.
That Yom Kippur moment was a formative moment in my honorary Jewish life. We should all take time to think of both kinds of “sins.” Things we did wrong, things we could have done better, and things we know we should have done.
Officially, I got my honorary Jewish status by working at the Jewish Community Center after I returned from Moscow. I wanted to retain my Russian language, and the greatest concentration of Russians was at the Jewish Community center. I learned my holidays, some weak Hebrew, and bonded with some families and friends. I worked with refugees, old ladies, and teens trying desperately to integrate. And I got to eat—Jews and vegetarians love each other—well, if not love at first sight, at least it’s a mutual respect. Vegetarians and Jews never mess with anyone’s food—Italians, Irish—they’ll take the sausage out of the soup and tell you it’s vegetarian, but Jews—no way. The diet is sacrosanct. It forms a strong basis for bonding.
Being Jewish is a complex thing. It’s not cut and dry like being Buddhist or Catholic or Baptist. Being Jewish isn’t only a religion—I know plenty of Jews who are entirely secular. Being Jewish is more than that. It’s an identity, a tradition, something you carry with you through generations of family members who have been kicked around Europe and the Middle East,discriminated against since the earliest days of Christianity. In Europe, there were witch hunts called Blood Libel where Jews were accused horrific acts like murdering children. St. Simon of Trent was one of these children, killed in 1472, and made a Roman Catholic saint while Jews were the scapegoats. Jews were persecuted in the Spanish Inquisition and then by both the Russian Tsars and the Soviet Union.
Many of them came here—bringing a rich tradition, but at what cost—millions of families destroyed, homeless, searching for an identity, not unlike many African-Americans brought here by imperialists extending their empire.
I experienced this in Moscow one day. I read some anti-semitic graffiti—there was a lot in Moscow. People stared at me. I didn’t understand. I asked my friend. “Oh,” she said, lowering her voice the way people who don’t want to appear prejudiced do when they utter the ethnicity in question, “You look Jewish,” she said. It was not an utterance of fact so much as the tone of apology that made me sad. Yet most Jewish families have experienced far worse.
And so, on this Yom Kippur, I’m taking the time to appreciate Judaism. I’m making the effort to be better, to seek forgiveness where it is warranted, and find ways to improve the world around me. It’s something we should all do from time to time, even without a great holiday to give us the excuse.