You wonder what life was like here before the factories emptied out and the drug-addled wanderers made comments about your appearance on the street. Before they came close enough to touch and sneered, "I'll bet they were beeping at her." Before you didn't tell your coworkers that you liked to walk around because they looked at you in horror and then looked quickly away. Many have come to accept certain quirks like liberal worldviews and Dr. Martens boots, but not fishnets or putting oneself in a potentially "uncomfortable" situation.
But after being chased by a homeless, mentally ill man on on you way to yoga at a studio in Washington Square Park in another world, you realize how each situation is a series of contradictions. That nice lady smiling at you with all her teeth in Wallgreens - she's cheating on her husband. The cashier who tells you to have "a blessed day," without stopping to check whether religion is even waiting in the wings of your life is also an abusive alcoholic.
Those empty buildings aren't entirely vacant either. As you bike to work and try not to be hit by a car, you see shift workers out on break, faces dusted with their labors and packets of cigarettes peeking from shirt pockets. They stand or congregate around benches just far enough from the factory doors as to enjoy the fresh air, but still so close that they are reminded that the freedom of the workday's end is still hours away. They are remarkably quiet, you might notice; if this was New York City and these men were construction workers, you would receive catcalls or comments despite being bundled up to the eyeballs against the crispy clean air. Here, however, perhaps their silence is better; you've already experienced the tunnel-like thinking of many and spied more than one Trump shirt at the clean, proper, suburban grocery store which commends itself on its diversity by having one international aisle and Hanukkah candles next to the seasonally displaced Christmas memorabilia.
The streets on your morning run might be emptier than before, save schoolchildren waiting to be bused. They sometimes smile shyly, and you make a point to beam and to wave any any small girls. It's not about you, it's about them, and setting a good example. You're the grownup now. You are the one that others admire and you know that because there is no longer the gnawing self-loathing cannibalizing your worldview. But when you're around the corner, you start to skip and sing out loud lyrics to the best album this year, whose creators you've already seen twice in sweaty, beery venues. With whiskey in hand, you sang yourself hoarse and your heart swelled to other creatives' passion and dedication and the excitement you shared with the love of your life next to you. Because even though this music helped you understand yourself, knowing it touched another's heart doubles its overall beauty and meaning.
So you run, and you gaze at the fluffy clouds and the watercolor sunrise and you feel a little sad because it will be darker this time next week. And you go to your designated spot and complete your designated tasks and you don't worry about how it affects your being any longer. You leave and you drive and you sing and you feel free and light of heart and pollute the environment and struggle and laugh and learn and don't feel the need to profess it on a bumper sticker or vapid social media posts. You are considered dull, but your life is that kaleidoscope of color that you watched during summer sunsets, beer in hand after long bike rides, chilly lake swims and sweaty afternoons walking past empty warehouses, dilapidated houses and local businesses with air conditioning, warm smiles and too-long conversations.
How I choose to attend to my Jewish background is my business.
I've been told in the past I "have" to be one way or the other, to act in a manner befitting...someone else's idea of who I should be, or that my observance of holidays is inadequate. I've been defined by my background and expected to have certain behaviors - in some cases, I'm sure, horns growing out of my scalp.
And so over the years, I've personally decided the manner in which I want and need to observe holidays and to learn more about this part of my background.
in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur is probably the most significant holiday. When I was little, it wasn't exactly a thrilling prospect to spend the day at the synagogue - I guarantee not many people would admit that - but along I went because that is what we were supposed to do. As always, there were many things I enjoyed about being there, even though this little lady silently protested too much. There was the warm smell, the polished wood, the mournfully rich songs in Hebrew that punctuated long Torah passages, prayers or a sermon, the feeling like I belonged there, and the feeling like there was something unspoken and shared between my mom, my grandparents and my self. We would arrive, and hushed, familiar faces and friends of my grandparents would smile at me, even though this was a more solemn occasion. We would greet one another just by the simple act of a touched arm, a whisper or kiss on the cheek. We all understood.
I would sit and stand when directed and my mom and grandma would point out the Hebrew words as the Rabbi recited them, even though I did not understand. When they tired of this, I would look around. The light would shine through the stained glass, and I would wonder about the day outside. I would count the memorial lights glowing, and look for the deceased with my name. This was the only place I would see my name up above me. I would wonder about the afternoon, and think about lunch, and then remember to pay attention to the Rabbi instead.
No matter how long we were there, I knew a break was coming. My mom and I greeted the day during the Yizkor or memorial service. It was bad luck to stay during those prayers if your parents were still living, so my mom and I would walk, slowly, down to the river and back. Sometimes we would come back in for a while. Sometimes my mom would collect my grandma and we would leave. In the car ride home, I always anticipated lots of challah bread with butter, cottage cheese and perhaps a cookie, if there were any left and I had behaved. We stayed in our synagogue clothes for the rest of the afternoon, and broke our fast with prayers and candle-lighting when the sun started to set.
Today, I don't know the prayers myself. I can't really read Hebrew, save a word or two here and there. I only recently made my first brisket, and now live in a place like where I grew up: back to being in the very minority and most people not having a clue about what being Jewish even means. Yet I chose to fast on Yom Kippur. I decided to make the brisket and the kugel and light the candles on Rosh Hashana, after confirming the right prayers online. I am biking, solo, to services and am honestly mortified by the inconvenience and the otherness I fear it exhibits. But I will go, for a while. I will eat another piece or two of the challah bread when it is time to, again, light the candles and break the fast. I will find the meaning for myself and I will remember even though my grandparents are gone and my mom is far away, how to reflect, to change, to be willing to accept my faults and to adapt into a better person in the coming year.