Understanding Yom Kippur - Then and Now
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is a concept I came to understand in my early adult years. But this was my understanding during my childhood:
- Yom Kippur really translated into “Indian Summer.” Why? Every year my mother and I made our seasonal trip to Alexander’s in Paramus, N.J., to buy yontif clothing. Because we were on the East Coast, we bought what they stocked at that time of year — fall clothes — wool skirts, long-sleeved blouses, and tights. Sitting in temple, shvitz-ing in these new clothes, all my mother would say is “Indian Summer.” (For those of you non-East Coast folks, that’s when September and October decide to be unbearably hot!) It didn’t matter: You had to wear your yontif clothes on the High Holy Days!
- The men in my synagogue had an odd habit of “excusing” themselves during services more than seemed necessary, somewhat randomly, and some years more than others.I wondered: “If they’re fasting on Yom Kippur, why do they need to use the bathroom so often?” Then I recall once going outside during services only to find several men “getting some air” while they oddly pressed their ears to their shoulders. I eventually realized this meant they were listening to their ”transistor radios.” Of course, that only happened on the years when the World Series and the High Holy Days conflicted!
- The real Yom Kippur memories are of wondering how I would manage to remember everyone I had wronged and figure out how I could apologize to all of them. It seemed like an overwhelming and unachievable goal, so I thought about it and probably never followed up. I may have apologized to my parents, but probably to no one beyond them. Maybe I figured just thinking about it was enough.
Fast forward to my adult life:
- Having lived in California for 35 years, I no longer have to wear woolen clothes for the High Holy Days. What a relief!
- I married a musician — who doesn't know a football from a hockey puck. So if I can actually get him to go to temple, I know he will never “excuse” himself for the World Series!
- The real change came in my understanding of atonement and how to make it a part of my life — not just on Yom Kippur, but every day.
For many years, I have been a member of a “12-step” program for my sugar addiction. One of the most powerful lessons I have learned through this program is to make “living amends.” Simply put, I must be aware of those whom I have wronged – on a daily basis. As soon as I realize that I have wronged someone — or even think I may have — I try to make amends. This is especially important in situations where I may still think I’m right, but the manner in which I expressed myself was too strong or possibly condescending. Maybe I had a right to sit quietly and read at lunchtime, but I did not need to totally ignore the person who walked into the room. Maybe I was so sure of my solution to a challenge that I cut someone else out of the conversation. And, while I was definitely right in correcting my daughter when she started to turn down the wrong street, I could have had more empathy for her as a new driver! Making those living amends in a timely fashion helps me maintain rich and meaningful relationships. It’s a message to those with whom I engage that relationships are sacred and must be treated as such. The Yom Kippur of my childhood was stuffy, confusing, and a bit overwhelming. Today, Yom Kippur is a meaningful day of reflection — about how I have atoned over the past year. What did I learn from those moments of asking for forgiveness? Did the other person really hear my apology? Did I mean it? Has my behavior changed at all? How will my actions be different in the coming year? I take stock of my efforts throughout the past year and set a path of continued self-reflection and action for the coming year. And I thank God I don’t have to wear “fall clothes”!
Dr. Madelyn Mishkin Katz is associate dean at HUC, Jack H. Skirball Campus, Los Angeles, California.