In last week’s post, I talked about my complex relationship with Judaism in regards to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. This week, as Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, approaches, you might just figure out where that complex relationship originated.
My father is the middle child and older son in his family. Like his brother and sister, he attended Hebrew school, had his Bar Mitzvah, and even married a nice Jewish woman when the time came (which might possibly do a bit to explain why he’s currently engaged to a nice Gentile woman, but more on that after I’ve had a few drinks). And yet, like me, he is an atheist. While he heads the table at family gatherings and leads the service every Passover, a tradition that fell to him once his father passed away, his lack of devotion shines through.
“Why don’t you read this Hebrew prayer,” he’ll suggest to one of my male cousins or my Israeli uncle. When it comes time for him, the patriarch, to read a passage where saying only the English translation just won’t do, he’ll visibly brace himself.
“Bar…uch…attoi…a…don…ai…” In such a manner, he will squint and sweat his way through the prayer, wiping the sweat from his brow and literally patting himself on the back when he is done. “Whew!” he gasped at the last service, grinning and chuckling at his siblings.
And as faulty as his Hebrew is, his grasp of symbols is even worse.
“What the hell is this for?” he asked, picking up the boiled egg that sat in front of him at our most recent Passover Seder. “I know what all the rest of the things in this tray mean,” he said, gesturing at the bitter herbs, matzoh, shankbone, and other symbolic foods, “but why an egg?”
My aunt stared at him as though staring at a very special kindergartner, a look I suspect he got a lot from her as a child. “It’s a fertility symbol,” she explained patiently.
“Even in Judaism?” he asked skeptically. We all jumped in to explain that Judaism, like all the monotheistic religions, still draws on pagan groundings for some of its meanings. He twisted his lip in something between a sneer and a frown, but continued on with dinner.
And yet, the very fact that he continues to take his place at the head of the table and read all the way through the service shortened children’s service we continue to shorten further and use despite everyone being at least 24, ignoring my uncle’s whining pleas of, “Can we skip this part?” (In one particular instance, my dad’s response was, “You don’t want to skip this part. This is the part where we eat dinner.”) So it was always with a little trepidation that I accepted his offers to take a day off for the high holidays and go up to the mountains as a child.
In one instance, I took Yom Kippur off because he figured I’d earned it, going to temple with Grandma. More often than not though, he’d call out, “Hey Bree! It’s Yom Kippur/Rosh Hashanah/Passover tomorrow. Wanna go up to the mountains?” And I would agree, since I generally did not feel much like going to school and would take any opportunity to get out of it. Still, I’d wonder if I was expected to pretend to be a nice Jewish girl by, say, not ordering a bacon cheeseburger for lunch.
The question more or less got settled late in my elementary school career. It was Yom Kippur on this occasion, and observant Jews spend the day fasting to atone for any wrongs committed the previous year. It was also a gorgeous fall day, and the leaves were changing on the aspens. Spending this crisp, clear day up in Winter Park instead of going to the school was a no-brainer.
Still, I felt a little apprehensive as we drove up. Were we going to bother to get lunch? Would we at least get an early dinner? I’d been diabetic since the age of two, so if I didn’t eat, my blood sugar would go psychotic on me, but maybe my dad was adhering to Jewish tradition and would get cranky if he had to see me eat. I felt in my pocket for the emergency granola bar I always carried, knowing that at least if I had to eat something, at least I could reassure my dad that I wasn’t getting any pleasure out of the food I consumed.
We’d just gotten off the interstate and onto US-40. During the warmer months, there are always vendors selling food and drinks out of the backs of their trucks. Though the summer tourist traffic had largely died down, there was still one guy there with a handmade sign. “Homemade Beef Jerky – $1 a bag.” My stomach growled, thinking of the food I might not be able to eat that day if my dad was hung up on paying spiritually for his day off.
But he spotted the sign, too. He made a hasty turn into the gravel lot where the homemade jerky vendor had his truck parked. “Want some beef jerky?” he asked as he got out of the car.
“Sounds great!” I said. We munched on jerky the whole way up Berthoud Pass and looked at the aspens first before getting lunch. I’m pretty sure we both got sandwiches, and I’m also pretty sure they each contained a lovely combination of meat and cheese.
And yet the day stayed beautiful, and we returned to Denver without incident. So it could be that Yahweh has bigger things to worry about than whether or not two of his Chosen People buy delicious homemade beef jerky from a guy in Empire, CO, or even that this is my dad’s reward for being a dutiful son and keeping my grandmother happy with his continued adherence to tradition. Or most likely, two atheists with Jewish last names can take a day off work and school for socially acceptable reasons, and no one particularly gives a damn.