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Ta-Nehisi Coates and Yom Kippur

 

My Rabbi came up to me after services in September, a week before the high holidays, to ask if I would be willing to do one of the readings for Yom Kippur afternoon. I think they’d run out of volunteers to take part in the services, so he threw up his hands and asked me.

He brought me to the synagogue library, where he had lined up all of the poems on the table, in the order in which they would be read during the Yom Kippur afternoon services. He had a piece in mind for me, a poem by Marge Piercy that looked very long. He said I could read the Marge Piercy, or really, I could choose whichever one I wanted. I started to read through a couple of the other pieces and he laughed at me, because I’d read all of them a few times over when I helped with the proofreading a few weeks earlier, but, my memory’s not so good.

I glanced across the table and saw the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece and just grabbed it, because that was the one, of everything I’d read, that echoed for me. I felt the same way with that piece as I’d felt when I asked if I could adopt Butterfly, and the woman at the shelter said yes. You mean, you don’t have to save her for someone more worthy?!

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My Butterfly.

After I’d made my choice, the rabbi told me that it would be part of something called the “Martyrology.” I’d never heard of a Martyrology before, and he described it, or at least this iteration of it, as a focus on what it is like to be Black in America right now. A young (white) man from our synagogue came up with the idea, and he was bringing two friends to speak about their experiences, and congregants (including me) would read three poems, to echo their message, and fill out the ceremonial quality of the event.

The rabbi said it might be cheesy, but I stuck to my choice.

It took me about three seconds after leaving the library to realize what I’d just agreed to – reading in public, dressed up, in heels, at the podium, in front of a crowd (the whole sanctuary, plus the social hall behind it, was filled for that service by the way, and if I’d known that ahead of time there would have been vomiting).

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“Mommy, you look ill.”

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“Are you gonna puke?”

At the same time, we had a weekly assignment in my Human Rights and Social Justice class (for social work school), to write a journal entry about the assignments and readings and anything else going on with us each week related to social justice. It was an opportunity to complain to our teacher, or consider new ideas, or confide internal conflicts or limitations or prejudices where no one else could read it.

My teacher was an African American man, with two young daughters, so when I knew I would be reading a piece from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, Between the World and Me, I wrote to him about my concerns, that I was usurping this story in some way, or misrepresenting it. I felt guilty in particular for taking this full-throated rant about race, and applying it to my own experiences, which are not about race at all. And I wanted permission to read it anyway, from a black man who could stand in for Ta-Nehisi Coates in a pinch. The teacher wrote back to me and told me to go for it, and be loud!

I read the two or three paragraphs to myself, and then to the dogs out loud, every day leading up to Yom Kippur, because I was terrified of reading in public, but also because reading it made me feel better. To write a book to your son, even if it is also a book to the world, is a way of saying – you matter. I would tell this story only to you. I have told this story only to you over and over again. I would spend years of my life talking to you and sharing with you even if no one else ever heard me, because this love between us deserves that level of effort and care and communication.

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Reading to the girls. Clearly they are fascinated.

The words, and the fact that I could hear them out loud in my own voice, were soothing. They reached into corners of my mind and body that are usually ignored. When I read the line “It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country,” I felt it deep in my bones. I don’t think this is necessarily how other people see me, but it is how I see myself: as subterranean. And I’ve taken the same comfort in the “struggle to understand” as Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken. I’m a writer because I need to be, because I have to struggle with how I see the world and myself every day.

The reality of the Martyrology was so much more powerful than I’d expected. First, the young man from the congregation spoke about how he’d grown up on Long Island, in a largely white town and largely white school and largely white synagogue, and it wasn’t until he went to the city for college that he met people whose experiences of the world were really different from his own. But it was the two speakers themselves, confronting us with the ways people like us have ignored them and mistreated them, which made the deepest impression on all of us. Everyone in the synagogue stood up and clapped when they were done, in the middle of the service, on Yom Kippur afternoon.

I was barely a blip in the program, but it meant a lot to me. Maybe people assumed I was just reading for Ta-Nehisi Coates, who for some reason could not make it to our Yom Kippur services on Long Island, but really, I was speaking or me, for the parts of me that have been ignored, mistreated, and pushed aside; the parts of me who rarely get to speak up in public, and be heard.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates. (2015) Between the World and Me, New York: Spiegel and Grau.

A Cardinal’s Song

We have a lot of birds in our backyard. There are the Baltimore Orioles and the Blue Jays and the Cowbirds and the Phoebes and the Starlings and these tiny little birds that seem like extra-large flies that crowd together in groups, and the Robins, and the Cardinals.

There was a Cardinal, back in the spring, whose song was like a Rosh Hashanah shofar blast – three long notes and nine short blasts, shvarim truah.

A Cardinal, but maybe not the singer.

A Cardinal, but maybe not the singer.

This is someone else's picture of a shofar.

This is someone else’s picture of a shofar.

This is someone's picture of a puppy blowing a shofar.

This is someone’s picture of a puppy blowing a shofar.

The cardinal came before the heat and humidity, when I didn’t mind spending extra time outdoors, just to catch the end of a song or hear it repeated. We might as well call the backyard of the co-op a wild life preserve, given the feral cats, birds, raccoons, squirrels, and random humans who hang out back there. The retaining wall is a massive overgrown hill, full of various plantings and weeds and trees and flowers, and the birds have found plenty of places to live in there. Mom tossed out some quilting scraps to help them build their nests, and the fabric disappeared, so someone made use of it. It’s possible that the squirrels are fantastically well dressed this summer.

A local squirrel.

A local squirrel, not noticing me, yet.

Feral cat.

Feral cat, yawning.

When I went inside and reenacted a whistled version, Butterfly went nuts barking in response. It’s possible she was objecting to my rusty whistling technique, but maybe she understands bird, and I was singing a very offensive song.

Butterfly, offended.

Butterfly, offended.

My mom can pick out a few birds accurately by their songs, and what she’s not sure of, she can check with Google. (Google sounds like something a bird might say, after all, or it’s what Cricket says when she sees a bird and tries to run after it and her leash stops her.) But Mom had never heard a bird sound like a shofar before, and neither had Google.

Cricket, mid-google.

Cricket, mid-google.

The shofar blowing is supposed to be a wakeup call, or a call to arms, but at our synagogue it ends up being a competition between the shofar blowing guys for who can hold the long note (the tekiyah gedolah) the longest. By that point in the service, I’m starving and feeling faint and I wish they had just a bit less lung capacity so I could go home and go to sleep.

I’m not a fan of the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), which start the Jewish calendar each year with a heavy dose of guilt and atonement. They probably throw in the apples and honey because otherwise we’d all shoot ourselves halfway through. The services are longer than usual, the clothes are more formal, the rabbis actually give speeches, and the synagogue is full to bursting with people I’ve never seen before.

When I was a kid I resented that we couldn’t sit in our regular seats for the high holidays, because someone else was already there, someone I’d never seen before who should really not be allowed to sit in my seat. Instead, I ended up in the folding chairs in the way back, because we were always late.

I would much rather have a bird service and sit outside on the lawn, and listen to the birds talking to each other. I wouldn’t have to dress up for that, or even comb my hair, if I didn’t want to. I wonder what the bird calls would wake me up to, the way the shofar wakes us up to do penance or atone or forgive or ask for forgiveness. Maybe the bird calls would simply be there to remind me to sing to someone, or to speak my piece to someone who will listen? Wouldn’t that be a great idea for a holiday? Cricket would love that! But she would probably spend all day singing and forget to listen to anyone else.

The birds are in there, somewhere.

The birds are in there, somewhere.

Cricket loves to sing for an audience.

Cricket loves to sing for an audience.

Lately we’ve had the cricket and katydid chorus blasting at us each night in the backyard when we take the girls out for their final pee, and Cricket thinks that’s as it should be.