Lately I have been engulfed with a feeling I could not define. Emptiness. I thought, concerned. But I have a life too full and rich to feel empty. I have a job I love; the new semester began with a bang, with my students arguing passionately about Iran, Israel, terrorism, war, peace, the world. And yes, that I still have no publisher for my memoir—a book in which I put my heart and soul, not to mention the time I dedicated to write and rewrite it--is a source of gloom. But after taking most of the summer off I am back contacting literary agents. Besides I have begun writing a new women’s fiction, an activity that has given me new energy and much enthusiasm. I deeply love and I am loved in return. Above and beyond, my seven-and-a-half year old granddaughter wants me to live to be a hundred and work until she can be my student and my four-and-a-half year old grandson wants to marry me. I feel no apathy or loneliness, which are associated with emptiness at least in the western philosophy to which I adhere.
Depressed? I question myself. After all I am the daughter of a woman who suffered clinical depressions and relished in her misery. Admittedly, the older I get the more preoccupied I am with the passage of time, sometimes grieving for those moments that will never return. But no. I am not a depressed person. If anything, my life story is testimony to my fervent optimism.
It’s the Holidays, stupid, I suddenly realized. I feel unsettled every year at the end of the month of Elul, the last month of the Hebrew calendar (which usually corresponds with the month of September).
For Jews it is a time of self-reflection, individually and collectively. It is also a time Jews think of departed loved ones and their legacies. But mostly, believing Jews acknowledge it is the period they are being judges by God before God inscribes their fate for the coming year.
Growing up fearing God I didn’t worry so much about God’s decision, since on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, my mother would stay all day in our neighborhood Shull, or small synagogue, crying and praying to God to inscribe her and her family in the book of life, keeping us safe, I believed. I was certain, too, that my paternal Hasidic grandparents would take care of us in their prayers. My father, I should mention, was not part of that safety net. Averse to religion because it was forced upon him by his father, for him--and for my sister and me --going to Shull during the High Holidays was a social thing.
The harshest testimony of my father’s antipathy to religion that I can recall was his bringing chspeck (fresh bacon) to our kosher home one day. What made his deed even worse than contaminating our kitchen with forbidden food, was the fact that he did that on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar next to the Sabbath that precedes it. Wrapped in white paper, he hid it in the back of our refrigerator till the following day, when my mother was in the synagogue; my sister probably with her friends, and I at home alone with my father. Frying the chspeck on Yom Kippur, the day of fasting, he made two sandwiches on challah bread, one for him, the other for me, making me promise that I would not tell anyone, particularly my mother, what had occurred in our kitchen. It was a hell of a good sandwich. I was seven or eight.
When I grew older and read in the prayer book the horrible ways in which condemned Jews were inscribed to die in the coming year, I would shiver wondering who would write such horrific descriptions. That no one is presumed innocent made my anxiety worse. To feel safe, I would tell myself that God had no time to follow every person on earth, determining his or her fate. Wait! I would then tremble. God has helpers. Besides He, as we learned, was omnipotent. There was nothing He couldn’t do.
As a secular yet cultural Jew I still go to temple on the High Holidays, though I do that for shorter periods. Mostly I marvel at the fact that around the world my fellow Jews do the same thing at the same time, bonded by our common tradition. I shudder less when I read those frightening passages, still trying to decide for myself the nature of God. Besides, I am more angered than frightened by those passages, rejecting the notion that religion should instill fear in its followers, while acknowledging that many religious leaders and their adherents would argue that it is the love rather than the fear of God that is intended in the teaching of Judaism, and that my interpretation of the Holiday Prayer Book is distorted. Perhaps.
Yet still tormented by my childhood fear of God, I am a true follower: In the Book of Leviticus (23:27) God tells Moses that on Yom Kippur Jews must torture their souls. For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people (23:29).
Have a joyful and peaceful New Year.
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