In case you hadn’t heard, we are right in the middle of the Jewish High Holy Days, also known as the High Holidays. (Here is a nice, user-friendly introduction, if you are interested.) I found myself in shul (synagogue) on Saturday, and I was pretty overwhelmed by the experience–not so much the experience of now as the experience of remembering what has brought me to this point. Hence, this post.
♦My first Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) was the year I was studying about Judaism, before I had converted. Mr. X was back in his state after spending the summer with me (we were in a long-distance relationship at that point). I was finally starting to feel familiar with the Shabbat (sabbath) service–knowing the tunes, recognizing more or less the order of things (the synagogue where I went conducted the entire service in Hebrew). Then came Rosh Hashanah. Little was I to know that they would change all the tunes and add tons more to the liturgy so that the little I felt familiar with suddenly disappeared. And instead of meeting in the small library as usual, we met in the big sanctuary, and people I had never seen before showed up, and the services seemed to last forever. I was less than impressed with all this High Holiday upheaval and was more than ready to get back to business as usual.
♦My second Rosh Hashanah was in Jerusalem. I had converted, X and I had married, and we went to Israel as part of his school program. As you can see from that previous sentence, everything had moved really quickly in the previous year, and I hadn’t really had time to process very much of it. Other things that were going on in my life included my family being pretty upset about my conversion (what with my going to hell and all–they’ve come a long way, baby, since that time), and my graduating with my master’s in social work. As far as Jewish observance in general was concerned, something I couldn’t really see at the time, but is crystal clear now (thank you, hindsight!)–my religious observance level was 100% determined by X and what he wanted. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty stifled, pretty suppressed–but didn’t even know it. X was also very threatened by anything on my part that he perceived as not totally enthusiastic about Judaism on my part. Along came the High Holidays and their (seeming to me) hyper-focus on “repentance.” At the time I was carrying around a whole-lotta baggage from my Christian past that hadn’t been dealt with, and the High Holidays were the one time of the year that Judaism felt uncomfortable to me because of this focus. X, of course, instead of being understanding, or giving me space to work out my own issues from my own past, just piled on the guilt about my not being totally gung-ho about the New Year. Because, you know, everything else I had done so far wasn’t enough. (And again, I wonder, how could I not see it then?) So that second Rosh Hashanah was mostly about getting through it. And a big relief when it was over.
♦Rosh Hashanah, take three. We were back in the U.S., and Mr. X was completing the last year of his program, after which he would be a full-fledged rabbi. Based on the previous two years’ experiences, I was not exactly looking forward to RH. I had just started a new job, and had to take off several (unpaid) days at the start due to these holidays. I remember hosting a couple of meals–there was always a lot of work to do, but the person I was always worried about pleasing was X. Things needed to be “just so” for him. He always had an idea in his mind about how Jewish things should go, and if they didn’t go the way he wanted, well…let’s just say his mood would swing. Looking back it is so easy for me to see how much I did without really wanting to, how much I did because I was afraid not to, but at the time, I just had a tight feeling in my chest, a feeling of being stuck, though I couldn’t have put those words to it. If I didn’t really want to go to religious services on Shabbat, how much more did I not want to go on Rosh Hashanah, when I would be trapped there for hours longer than usual, hungry and bored.
♦The fourth Rosh Hashanah was the first year that Mr. X and I were in the town that I’ve referred to elsewhere as “Small Pond.” He had taken a pulpit job, and we were firmly in the “honeymoon” stage that new clergy often experience with congregations. A friend of ours that we had met the year we lived in Israel came to lead the musical parts of the services, and having her there was wonderful for me. I hadn’t gotten a job yet, so I wore myself out cooking and cleaning and we hosted every meal (lunch and dinner) for our cantor friend and her parents. As for the services, I remember thinking that I hated the High Holidays a little less that year. Sweeping praise, I know. This may have had something to do with the fact that X eased off somewhat in his pressure of me at the time (in Jewish things). I think partly this has to do with the fact that I was pressuring myself so much, he no longer needed to…
♦The fifth Rosh Hashanah…the honeymoon was definitely over. It was our second year in Small Pond, and we had been trying for several months to conceive. About a month before RH, I had seen my ob-gyn for my yearly exam, and had received a diagnosis of PCOS. We were referred to the “fertility specialist” in the practice. When RH came around, so much was up in the air. I didn’t know yet that X’s sp.erm analysis would show severely low-mo.rphology. I didn’t know how long it would take to get a definitive answer about that, even. I just knew that my worst nightmare had just opened up and pulled me in. That year, there was another visiting cantor, but not a friend. Also, X’s parents came to visit for the High Holidays, and stayed with us, so I had less space to deal with my feelings. There was a lot for me to do, and a lot of emotion running just below the surface. I don’t remember much of my impressions about the religious aspects of the HH that year. I just remember being in pain and being scared.
♦The sixth Rosh Hashanah. Last year. It was my fifth as a Jew. Things were hard between Mr. X and me. I had started getting emotionally healthier, and that meant a lot more saying, “no.” That meant a lot more trying to figure out what kind of religious observance I wanted to have, for me, not for him. This last part freaked X out more than anything else. He was losing his grip of control on me. I was learning how to take care of myself. I was learning that I could live without him. At this point I had not consciously imagined leaving him, though he would throw it in my face and accuse me of planning it (which blew my mind at the time, and I would do anything I could to convince him it wasn’t true–crazymaking). I was trying so hard to hold myself together and hold my marriage together. I still didn’t know that it would have to be one or the other, that I couldn’t have both. It was during the High Holidays last year that I reconnected with the Divine. I don’t really know how else to describe my experience, but it was an amazing time for me. Amazing and hard, as I still had to come home with X. I didn’t really focus on the machzor (prayerbook) or the set liturgy that everyone else was doing. I stayed in my own head mostly. There were a couple of images that came to me during that time. These images gave me peace and I don’t know how I would have gotten through that month, that autumn without them.*
♦This year. Seventh Rosh Hashanah. Sixth year as a Jew. First year on my own. I had not been wanting to do anything Jewish at all, at all, at all. I had been starting to wonder about myself, if I was going to want to stop being Jewish. I didn’t want to want that…
About a month ago, maybe a month and a half ago, I was walking Miss Famous and I heard in my head some of the traditional tunes for the High Holidays. These are tunes that are only used at this time of year. I found myself wanting to be in shul for the holidays. With that desire came a great relief. I don’t know what my Jewishness will end up looking like, but it is still there, and it will be mine.
So I only went first day RH this year (it’s a two-day holiday). I didn’t know how I would react, being in shul again, after so many months being away. I decided that I really like being anonymous, or at least, not being the rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife). I liked just blending in. There were tears, and there was relief. There was no panic attack**, and there was nothing out of the ordinary (unless you count the tears).
*I will talk about these another time. This post is already so long, I would not want them to get lost in it.
**I’ve never had a panic attack, but I found myself wondering and worrying about my reaction to being in shul again, being in those services again with how connected they are to Mr. X in my mind.