One of These Jews Is Not Like the Others: A Progressive Jew at an Orthodox Yom Kippur

It was raining at dusk. I decided not to ride my bike to the progressive Yom Kippur service on the Boston University campus. If I rode my bike, I would get too thirsty coming home and I wouldn’t keep the holiday fast.

So I went to the orthodox synagogue in my neighborhood.

At the synagogue I did everything wrong. I wore leather boots; I wore makeup and a colorful dress; my phone alarm went off; I hadn’t reserved a seat behind the mechitza; I entered on the men’s side. Oh well, I thought, at least it’s the Day of Atonement and I’m bound to be forgiven for my transgressions.

On Yom Kippur morning I read in bed for the first part of the day, trying to escape the demands of the fast, until I started to feel guilty. I rose and walked to a coffee shop and read about Abraham Joshua Heschel, a historic rabbi who made concrete advances for Jews in the field of interfaith relations. The more I read of Heschel, the more I wanted to return to the Orthodox synagogue for the Neilah, the final service of Yom Kippur. There we would sing Avinu Malcheinu. It was the only time I would catch it this year, having missed Rosh Hashanah completely and having arrived an hour late to Kol Nidre.

I was wearing knee-high Converse boots and a red miniskirt. I had to go home and change. I showed up at the service as it was already in progress and, even though I had made improvements with more modest and darker dress, I still obviously didn’t belong there. I demurely stood and read the Hebrew, sang the melodies, knew the movements. I was signaling to everyone around me that I am Jew-ish. But, still, it was obvious: one of these Jews was not like the others. 

Toward the end of the Neilah someone on the men’s side fainted. It happens frequently on Yom Kippur toward the end of the 25-hour fast. But this fainting spell was more dramatic than a low blood-sugar slump. The rabbi stopped the service and stepped into the men’s crowd to attend to the fallen congregant. The women murmured anxiously behind the mechitzah. We couldn’t see anything. We didn’t know who had fallen or what was going on. Someone was in pain; we heard moaning. But  the women were cordoned off, with no information. The Rabbi called over the wall, “Joanna! Come here!”

Joanna, a matronly woman, pushed through the women’s section and suddenly the walls of the mechitzah were moving. The rolling wooden partitions parted like the Red Sea. For a brief moment genders mingled as Joanna crossed to the men’s side and helped her son who had fallen and dislocated his shoulder. An ambulance was called. As we waited, the service restarted—what else were we to do with our time?—and the mechitzah walls rolled together, firmly closing again, shutting the women away from any more information.

The ambulance arrived. The two EMTs who appeared at the synagogue door were women. They wore pants—they wore professional, masculine, tightly-fitting EMT uniforms. The mechitzah walls parted once again for a stretcher, upon which the female EMTs rolled the ailing boy. The women performed their duties efficiently, watched solemnly by the crowd of hungry men in suits. The EMTs courteously nodded at the congregation—at the men and women separated by a moving wall, women under layers of modest fabric and synthetic hair, men draped in fringed prayer shawls and gathered close to the Torah scroll.

The EMTs carried the boy out and the mechitzah doors once more rolled together and clicked shut. A man in a large white shawl and velvet skullcap closed the synagogue side door firmly and the sirens of the departing ambulance were stifled, fading. The Hebrew chanting revved up.

We continued as if nothing had happened.

After the service we broke our fast with challah and orange juice. Several women stared at me curiously and I lamely explained that I live in the neighborhood and thought I could just drop by. I slid my long sleeves down over the Hebrew tattoo on my left wrist and, on my right wrist, the tattoo of my father’s side’s Scottish family crest. I felt miserably irreverent. Taking pity on me, one lady invited me to dinner. I stammered nervously, blushing hot, reddened by an enervating impostor complex. I replied NO MA’AM THANK YOU BUT I MADE PLANS WITH MY GENTILE ROOMMATE TO EAT PIZZA WITH HAM ON IT.

Mercifully, she laughed. She shrugged and chuckled, “Whatever fills you up….”

I walked home in the rain.

I am pleased that I celebrated Yom Kippur at the modern orthodox synagogue but I didn’t belong there. They are my people, and they are not my people.

The modern orthodox have committed to be Jewish in as close a way as possible to the ancient historical intent of Jewish practice, given the constraints and complications of modernity. This means, very plainly, that they commit to follow the commandments of the Torah. There are 613 commandments. These Jews live a very disciplined, immersed, thoroughly Jewish lifestyle. They take unto themselves the burden–or as some see it, the reward–of practicing a set of behaviors and liturgies that would have disappeared millennia ago if some people weren’t taking the responsibility to perpetuate them. I don’t know whether the ancient Jewish traditions would live today if it weren’t for the modern orthodox, who secure Judaism’s most extreme observances.

Thanks to them, people like me can be Jewish in a very different way, dedicated to Judaism not ritually but as a matter of identity, community engagement, and a decent education as to what the modern orthodoxy perpetuates and why.

Are these people “more Jewish” than I am because they go whole hog? I don’t think so. As I understand the law, Jewishness is pretty black and white. You are or you aren’t. There are degrees and variations of observance. The line of belonging is pretty clear—but the content of that belonging has infinite expressions. The diverse expressions of Judaism can coexist in modernity, and that’s what we call Jewish pluralism.

I will never be an orthodox Jew. I have been too exposed to marvelous insights in many religious traditions to accept the idea that there is an “only” or “best” or even “most authentic” way to stand in relation to ultimate reality. I have never peacefully tolerated being pushed behind a mechitza or up into a balcony just because I am a woman. Plus, observing Judaism in an orthodox way would be, for me, a sort of fanaticism. 

Moreover, I think there’s a lot to be said for the way I practice Judaism. I fast for Yom Kippur. I helped teach a seminar on the Holocaust at Boston University and for two years I led a Bar/Bat Mitzvah class at a secular humanist Jewish cultural society. I was the music director at a BBYO summer camp and worked at an LGBT synagogue in Manhattan for two years. I made a movie about secular humanist Judaism. I currently lead children’s services at Beth Hillel Roma, my progressive Jewish community in Rome. I travel through Israel and Palestine with Confronti Magazine and help facilitate intercultural dialogue and peace-building programs. I help young Jewish people connect authentically to ideas and challenges of Judaism. I plan to raise my children to be Jewish.

I certainly feel very Jewish. 

It is not for me, modern orthodox Judaism. But it is moving to see people give their lives to perpetuating the faith of their ancestors, who exercise their religion with such discipline, focus, and passion. 

From the orthodox synagogue on Yom Kippur, I carried home clarity that I am not an orthodox Jew. Spending Yom Kippur with them was as much of an interfaith experience as I have had. May they be blessed in the new year.

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3 thoughts on “One of These Jews Is Not Like the Others: A Progressive Jew at an Orthodox Yom Kippur

  1. This is beautiful, Jenn. I loved hearing your story. This line especially struck me: “The line of belonging is pretty clear—but the content of that belonging has infinite expressions. ” As I read your story I was thinking about queer communities and the way that separatist Lesbians in their 70s and 80s are elders for me, the way that their lives, although difficult for some to reconcile (because many insist on woman-only space and define woman-only as biologically being born a woman) also made my life possible. They create a space for identity that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Those lines of belonging and the space we have for finding ourselves on either side can be rich if we trust our own inner sense of who we are and what calls to us. Then the places where we don’t fit offer a kind of helpful resistance…like we can push against them to know ourselves more deeply.

  2. You speak alot of the deepest truths of my heart. Lucky to have you as a friend and mentor on this journey of Jewish self-becoming, whatever on earth that means.

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