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.