I wrote this for an American Ethnic Literature course seven years ago. It has nothing to do with American ethnic literature.
And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day, you shall afflict yourselves, and shall do no work. . . . For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall by clean before the Lord. It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever.
These words, found in the third book of the Jewish people's most sacred text, describe the highest holy day of their faith-Yom Kippur. An annual cleansing of the spirit, the event calls for every Jew to repent for his sins, asking forgiveness of God and those against whom he has sinned. It is a time for immediate families to venture together to the synagogue and for extended families to be remembered and contacted, a time for contemplation of the past and the promise of the future. It is a time of great seriousness and gravity.
I neglected to go this year, despite all of that. I watched the sun travel through the sky, monitoring its movement until it set in the west and the holiday ended without my having observed any part of it. The year before, I did attend, exhibiting the impatience and religious malaise typical of my congregation's youth and disappointing to the older generations. The pressures of contemporary American life have pushed religion to the wayside in younger minds, demanding more concentration on success, achievement, and (especially) economic prosperity. Our parents, having established their places in life, often return to the religion, shaking their heads as their children fidget in their seats, check their watches, and run for the door at the end of the service.
That service, usually lasting no more than three hours in Reformed Judaism, begins approximately at ten o'clock and follows a specific pattern every year, from the opening welcome to the delivery of the sermon. Similarly, the same habits are repeated by the congregation; I have even grown old enough to see the cycle begin to repeat itself. The day of Yom Kippur (having already sacrificed the important Kol Nidre service the night before to studying or work), I immediately fail to afflict myself in the manner advocated by Leviticus and the faith-I do not fast. A bowl of cereal later, I return to my room in order to break a cultural doctrine: the accepted dress code. Had I been fully in tune with the somber nature also prescribed in the Torah, I might have dressed as my father does; that is, in a dark suit, conservative tie, and traditional tallas and yarmulke. However, I must dress to be comfortable afterwards, when I will return to school in order to complete the day's more pressing demands. Last year, once at the Temple, my mother and I (my brother was in Boston, and my father with his new wife and kids) turned to the back of the synagogue, looking for a few empty seats in the rear where we could be safe from the Rabbi's stare and closest to the exits. Turning around, I could see the other Jews I had grown up with, dressed just as casually, in a clear demonstration of their intentions to depart quickly and return to their regularly scheduled programs. Scanning from the farthest rows to those right before the bima seemed like watching the progression of life from adolescence to old age. Only the very old and the very young sat in the first rows-as if these two groups were the closest to God.
That layout appears to reflect the influence of religion on the contemporary American Reformed Jew. The adolescent, supreme in his youth, sits farthest from the Torah both in and out of the synagogue. On the verge of young adulthood, these members of the congregation are under the power of two greater, more immediate institutions than religion. Milton Gordon offers a brief definition of the first:
"Anglo-conformity" is a broad term used to cover a wide variety of viewpoints about assimilation and immigration; they all assume the desirability of maintaining English institutions (as modified by the American Revolution), the English language, and English-oriented cultural patterns as dominant and standard in American life. (22)
This is the jumping-off point of Americanization, a process at the end of which lies the national consent culture of White, Capitalist America. Thought of by some as the ultimate eraser of ethnic identity, Americanization supposedly leads to a Melting Pot containing a very specific soup-more of a homogeneously white clam chowder than a vegetable, beef, and rice medley. The adolescent, whatever his religion or cultural background, is already fully invested in the process of Americanization. Part of growing up in any society is to be assimilated into it; the values of the larger culture impose themselves on the mind, often resulting in the reduction of one's dedication to the subculture.
In the case of religion and Judaism (which is as much a culture as a faith), the old English ideals take precedence over traditional customs. The Protestant work ethic of salvation through hard work and the sign of divine selection in the amassing of wealth have been with America since Elizabeth I wrested the colonial advantage away from Catholic Spain in the 16th century. The values of hard work and economic prosperity became as much a part of the United States as freedom and democracy. Immigrants to the U.S. discover and embrace them by desire or necessity, undergoing the assimilation process in order to survive and progress.
Natural born citizens are also assimilated into a society that, for better or worse, is still dominated by English institutions. Thus, my Rabbi (much to the chagrin of Orthodox Jews) leads most of the service in English instead of the original Hebrew, for almost none of the congregation can speak the religion's language. The Hebrew we do speak is limited to that which we know by memory and repetition; prayers read in unison year after year, delivered in a collective monotone that is at once impressive and passionless. For those who care to look, the Torah and Haftarah portions are all translated in hardcover versions of the sacred scroll placed throughout the room for the occasion. Pamphlets containing the names of the readers and their parts are handed out before the service, stagebills that make the ceremony into a performance. One must even buy tickets in advance.
"Americanization" has found its way into the religion, making it more accessible to the congregation, yet weakening its hold at the same time. The powerful assimilation creates a desire in the Temple's youth to leave the service in a rush to return to school, after grabbing a quick bite to eat. We do not rest, nor do we afflict ourselves; our future prosperity calls, beckoning us to return to class so that we will not fall behind. Confirmation class, the follow-up training to the Bar Mitzvah in Reformed Judaism, sees a noticeable drop in class size as the students leave Junior High to enter High School. Monday Night School, as it was often called, presented the threat of removing us from any number of the extra-curricular activities pitched to us as necessary for our college applications. The thirteen-year-olds have reaped their profits from Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and Confirmation promises no such fiscal benefits. Its importance is diminished by the large horizon of a new school, new responsibilities, and new social lives.
Therefore, on Yom Kippur, when he stands the best chance of reaching the greatest portion of his intended target, the Rabbi bemoans the future of Judaism, in each sermon (introduced, by the way, with a few good-natured, light-hearted Rabbinical in-jokes that depart from the somberness of the service), directing his comments towards the lackadaisical practice of the youth and their parents' failure to correct it. His usual topic does more to combat his cause than support it. The last few years have brought sermons admonishing the Jewish youth not to marry gentiles. He does not say, "Marry within the faith." He says, "Do not marry out of it." The suggestion is twofold; not only does he seek to limit us in our choice of a wife or husband, he implies that we should not marry at all if the other is not Jewish.
The portion of the congregation to which these statements are delivered rolls its collective eyes. Americanized as we are, the idea of outside interference in that variety of decision does not sit well. Late adolescence often brings with it a quality of romance that does not agree with the self-denial of love for religion. Furthermore, we resent the difficulty of the responsibility. Many of the parents in the congregation grew up within six blocks of each other; my own often told me of a network of Jewish mothers spying on everyone else's children. Meeting another Jew was a matter of getting the paper off the driveway in the morning. It appears that our elders do not fully appreciate the difficulty of falling in love with one of the other six Jews in the area. The comprehending youth, on the other hand, make it their business to pursue happiness wherever it leads, and the Rabbi's words cannot be heard if one moves far enough away.
Sitting at the back, unfortunately, does not quite get us out of earshot. The Rabbi drones on, building a case to which few people under thirty care to listen while the older members in front nod their heads in agreement and our parents twinge, promising to step up their attendance the following year. However, despite their combined efforts, the congregation's numbers continue to dwindle. Each successive generation is further removed from its Old World origins, more absorbed in American life than the last. For all those who return to the Temple, many do not, taking their children with them. Often, there are hopes for a backlash, a mass return on the part of youth to the institution only vaguely supported by their parents. However, in an area such as my own, a suburban town with no more than six or seven Jews in the nearest high school, the chances are slim. Our numbers are not great enough to inspire a movement that can progress under its own power. As we are few, we are independent; the sense of a cohesive society so much supposed to be a part of Judaism is utterly lacking. Three Jews (nearly half of my high school's Jewish population) have no guaranteed influence over a fourth. The remaining two are on their own as well.
The parents who still care "tsk" and sigh at the state in which they themselves are partially responsible for having left us, but with no great effect. Guilt, an appreciable component of Judaism, does not yet touch us as profoundly as it does them-we are guarded by another institution:
Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.
The mentality of youth is the shield unconsciously raised against the blows of guilt and remorse delivered by our elders. Our absorption into "Americanization" is facilitated by the belief in our own immortality. Religion can wait; the chance to repent will come again next year, and the year after that, ad infinitum-or so we think. The most pressing issues of modern American life, including the ultimate acquisition of wealth and comfort, demand immediate attention. America has spoken, and, for the meantime, its voice rings louder than God's in our ears. The pursuit of happiness comes first, and the road to it does not seem to go past the Temple doors. Therefore, we do not take seriously the serious day; our self-affliction is limited to staying for the entirety of the sermon, and we remain restless while the elder congregation frowns as though its members were not guilty of the same youthful negligence. Of course, one may be well assured that they were, for the warning delivered in the last two lines of the above passage has been dutifully ignored by the young for generations. God may judge us in all that we do, but not for what is seen-in youth-as a very long time.
Why, then, does anyone of my age group bother to make even the occasional venture to the synagogue? This last set of holidays was the first I have missed since I was old enough to be brought at all; had I not been in New York at the time, I no doubt would have been in attendance. Unfortunately, one cannot blame my negligence on the city; New York certainly does not suffer from a shortage of synagogues, and classes have been missed for less important reasons. The reasons (very well-excuses) were not geographic or academic. The difference that fosters my ability to shrug off services comes from the absence of one substantial factor: the family. That organization has the potential to hold more influence over a member than any other organized crime syndicate. It was for that institution that I and my colleagues coalesced into silently grudging attendance year after year. Our presence in Temple was the result of our parents' wishes-little, if any, influence came from God, the Rabbi, or the previous years of quasi-religious training in Sunday school. Failure to comply was a disappointment to Mom and Dad, both of whom at one point or another have said, "It's the right thing to do" or "It would be nice if you went" with that textbook delivery indicating so much more than what was said. So we went, repressed our yawns when we could, sighed at the end, hugged our various relatives, and smiled for a job well endured.
Without their presence in New York, I had little remorse in not going. The sad looks they might have worn had I not lied to them would have been a thousand miles away. More immediate demands took, and continue to take, precedence. The time for religion and penitence comes after one has accomplished the goals of the primary culture, just as those now in the front rows have done. They can now afford to return to their secondary culture and religion.
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh . . . and the dust returns to earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
The seating of the congregation may be seen as a reflection of the attitudes of its parts. The eldest members are closer to God not only in attitude, but in time. They, like us, largely ignored this warning as well, and must now make up for the past. Presumably, we will one day take their place in the front, the immortality of youth having vanished from our minds.
Being aware of this potential, however, I am still somewhat indifferent. I was recently asked if my belief in the likeliness of a return did not make me a hypocrite. I was also asked if I have left that choice to fate. To these questions I answered "No." My needs and desires may change in time, but this hardly renders me a hypocrite. Indeed, it is the foolish person who never recants what they once said, simply because they have said it. A hypocrite is one who exhibits two contradicting selves in the same time period-the person with different beliefs whom I will be when I am fifty does not contradict the person I am now.
As to fate, I believe it is the wrong word. I choose to leave the development of my faith, for better or worse, in the hands of life. The influences I will encounter throughout my existence are beyond my control, as are their potential effects on my character. The self is not a constant being; it changes as it continues to live, shedding the skins of outmoded ways of thinking. I am not yet in the position to say what the discoveries I will make in life will do to my sense of religion or any other matter. To engage in a struggle either supporting or combating a return to religion would be to undertake an impossible battle with an unknown future self-I intend to become what I will, for whatever I am at the time will seem right; if it does not, change will occur as a matter of circumstance. In the meantime, Youth-as it did to my elders-prevents me from knowing my ultimate place, and indifference is the only reasonable response to an issue about which one has no practical foresight. I cannot resent or revel in a future about which I know nothing.
For now, each one of us is Dr. Faustus, who forsook God in his youth to revel in his ill-gained powers for twenty-four years-my current lifetime plus five. As the time passed, he dealt with bouts of remorse, each having a greater effect on him than the one that preceded it. By the end of his time, when the sands ran out, he turned back to God, begging forgiveness on a makeshift Day of Atonement. He pursued happiness in his youth, regretted it in his later adulthood, and spent his last moments on earth in an attempt to repent. While the Jews of Temple Anshe Sholam's congregation have presumably made no deals with the devil, we have, in some way, sold our souls to America. Each year, on Yom Kippur, one can see the entire spectrum. There are future sellers, those who have sold, and those who are trying to buy back. I will join the last group, or not; who is yet to know? The choices I make are right for the times at which I make them. When the youthful exuberance fades, perhaps I will find myself once again before the Temple's gates. If so, I shall park my car, brush off my tailored suit, kiss my non-Jewish wife, and still be Jew enough to walk in proudly on Yom Kippur.
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