A Lonely Atonement: Yom Kippur in the Islamic Studies Reading Rooom

It’s Erev Yom Kippur. Perhaps the holiest night of the Jewish year. I’m sitting in the Islamic Studies Reading Room at Columbia’s Butler Library, reading through Shi’a manifestos about the end of days (in Arabic, naturally) as I call my relatives and ask them to forgive me for any sins I’ve committed against them.

I’m new to New York, and I don’t have a synagogue yet, but even if I did, there is something so comforting about being surrounded by tattered manuscripts in my beloved tongue… I feel that this room is my synagogue, these battered texts my prayer books, these fluid letters my own ritual language.

And yet. And yet. Love and scholarly interest cannot alone bridge the gap the separates this tortured Jewish girl and the Islam that she studies. The chasm that separates me from the believer has never been as wide as it is tonight, this particularly holy night, where I sit in a temple of Islamic texts, far from the people of my blood and alien to the people of my heart.

Jenn Lindsay–a brilliant scholar, author, and someone I’m proud to call a friend–once posed a particularly interesting question: how do people of one religion, who study another religion, stop themselves from converting? In other words, when you spend your days and nights immersed in the Gods, rituals, languages, texts, and life-world of an other people, how do you keep yourself from drowning in it?

For those of you who have read my work over the last year, saving myself from drowning–either into Arabness (if there is such a thing) or into Islam–has been the primary theme of my writing for State of Formation. Why do I study Islam, as a Jew? Why do I feel more at home in Arabic than in my native Russian? Why do I prefer living in Morocco to living in Israel? Why don’t I fit in with my tribe? And why don’t I just cross the line, make the logical choice, and convert?

A psychologist would have a field day with this stuff, huh? This Jewish child of post-9/11 America playing her little games of ethnic cross-dressing, ‘loving her enemy’ to the hilt, blurring the line between the self and the subject in ways predictable to any ethnographer or fieldworker.

“Why don’t you just convert?” A Muslim friend and chaplain asked me recently. “We all suspected you would when you were at Harvard.” The answer is I wanted to. I thought about it for two years, and I started working with Suhaib Webb at the Islamic Society of Boston in part because I wanted to think through this questions with a spiritual leader by my side.

But in the end, after years of travel and torture and study, I am what I am: an agnostic (perhaps atheist, let’s not get into that now) Jew who loves Islam and whose language of choice is Arabic. I am sure that these choices are at least in part politically conditioned responses to American imperialism in the Middle East, and to the Jewish ethnocentrism that I rejected utterly in my youth.

On the other hand, a good deal of it is pure love. Those of us who are blessed and cursed by the call to scholarship–which I believe is as religious a vocation, in its own way, as taking up the cloth–we spend our days and nights studying what we do because we love it. And like the spark of attraction that turns strangers into lovers, the reasons that we fall in love with our subject remain outside the bounds of human reason. It’s just magic.

From the library windows, I watch the last rays fall over the clouds of twilight. Kol Nidre, the Aramaic declaration recited in synagogue before evening services on Yom Kippur, is being chanted somewhere nearby. I can feel the spiritual energy–half of the Upper West Side is probably sitting in a synagogue somewhere right next to me. But I am atoning in my own way, in my chosen holy spaces, with my select sacred texts. And I am at peace.

Image courtesy of shutterstock.

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