This weekend Jewish people across the world celebrated the start of a new year, eating apple and honey to symbolise the sweetness of the year to come. And in six days time, on the night of 26th September, the day of atonement, Yom Kippur, will begin.
Yom Kippur is considered to be the holiest day of the year. It is acknowledged by a 25 hour fast, during which one prays and asks G-d for forgiveness in order to repent for all the sins they’ve performed during the past year.
For me Yom Kippur has always been important but it became even more so when I moved to a Jewish secondary school. Having grown up in an extremely liberal community, the things I was taught in my modern orthodox school confused me. I’ve always been one to follow rules, so receiving such contrasted opinions on what G-d required from me was confusing and eventually caused issues between me and members of my community.
As a pre-teen and teenager I always felt as though I had to obey the rules and fast because I always had something to atone for. On one occasion I even chose to walk/run to synagogue instead of getting in the car with my family. For context, it is considered to be a mitvah (good deed) to run to synagogue but a sin to run home from it. Just a few minutes into my journey I fell, ripping my favourite tights and badly scraping my knee. But instead of returning home I continued to limp the 1.7 mile journey. I felt that I had to because I had to follow these rules in order to repent and I had a lot to repent for.
The Jewish year follows a lunar calendar so festivals never take place on the exact same day as they did the previous year. But the Jewish calendar is pretty similar to the school one. This was always a blessing to me as it made it easier to look back and realise what I needed to repent for. To this day members of my community still joke about the petty things I used to say I wanted forgiveness for. But at the time they weren’t petty to me. As I’ve discussed before, from the moment I entered formal education I was branded as a ‘bad’ kid. I was misunderstood and unsupported. And the reality is, if you’re told something frequently enough, eventually you’ll begin to believe it.
It’s taken me eight years since I left school to be able to look myself in the mirror and see a person I am proud to be. So much of this world is about punishment and, in my opinion, that is a reflection of the Torah. I mean Moses was banned from entering Israel because he hit a rock. He negotiated with Pharaoh, guided the Jewish people through the Red Sea and across the desert for 40 years and received and delivered the ten commandments. Yet despite all of this, he was punished for one bad thing. Now I am not an expert, I’m sure there is more to this story than what I have said, but it still seems discouraging. How is any child supposed to grow up with confidence and determination when they’re constantly fearful of doing wrong?
For me being in the ‘Jewish bubble’ has always felt toxic. Everyone knows everyone. I fear that no matter what I do in life, no matter how much I improve, the reputation I had in school will always follow me. I’ll always be that weird, naughty kid who hit people, head-butted lockers and created an imaginary friend who lived in the school toilets. No matter how many self-improvements one makes in the present and the future, the past will always exist.
Last year was the first time in my life that I didn’t go to a synagogue service on Yom Kippur. I didn’t attempt to fast or even think about what I wanted forgiveness for. It was the first time I didn’t feel burdened by my ‘sins’. This is because last year Yom Kippur took place one day after my surgery. I’m not sure how I’ll approach it this year.
In time, I have come to realise that the rules I was instructed to follow are not necessarily the rules I believe in. Like all religions Judaism is an infinite spectrum. I’m not as liberal as my grandfather and his community but I’m nowhere near as orthodox as my school was. For me Judaism is as much about my heritage and traditions as it is about faith. Even more so really. I believe that consulting with one’s self about what could have been done better and what needs to change is important for all. But I no longer need G-d in order to validate that self-improvement has been made.
Yom Kippur is still important to me. It is part of who I am and how I grew up. I will take the time to consider my downfalls and perhaps even make some plans to improve. I will most likely reduce my food intake for the day, though that is not necessarily the most sensible thing to do. And even if I don’t fully believe in His divinity, I will pray to G-d.
In these unprecedented times we are all looking for some guidance, some hope or even just a little bit of normality. For many fasting and praying on Yom Kippur will give them all of that. I don’t know what observing the traditions will do for me but, now more than ever, I do believe it’s important to keep honouring these practices and keep Judaism strong and alive. I am proud to be a Jewish person, I’m proud of my heritage and history. I may not feel the need to ask G-d for forgiveness but I will do so anyway, as that is what us Jewish people do.