My Yom Kippur of Unity
I’ve had so many different kinds of Yom Kippurs.
A few years ago, I went to Kol Nidrei services at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah — CBST, one of the largest LGBT synagogues, and then went out with a bunch of fellow orthodox-from-birth, gay friends (FFBGs?) for cheeseburgers after the service.
Last year and the year before, I didn’t attend any services for Yom Kippur.
This year, a friend I grew up with in Seattle, who came and out got married, shared his plans with me.
“Tuesday night: Kol Nidrei at Downtown Base,” his text said. With a link toHillel International’s website.
“Hmm…” my reply began. “open, inclusive, pluralistic vibe?”
“Yes, yes and yes!” he fervently responded. “They are the warmest people.” He added that he and his husband go there a lot.
Months ago, I had grabbed a handful of Yarmulkes or Kippot I had acquired from bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, or special events over the years, and threw them down the trash chute in my building.
I simply had too many. You know, that whole “Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” thing.
But when you are Jewish, and your whole family belongs to the tribe, owning a yarmulke is like having a religious EpiPen, — you need to have at least one within arm’s reach because you never know when you’ll be invited to a Shabbat meal, a wedding, a Yom Kippur service.
I kept two. A black, cotton weaved, traditional-looking one. And a bright pink, leather kippah, with a pattern of pineapples printed in gold foil that I got from a friend in LA who threw a “Yacht-Mitzvah” for her 30th birthday party.
“I can’t wear this one,” my non-Jewish boyfriend said, as we put the finishing touches on our outfits before heading out the door. “It’s way too gay!”
“No it isn’t!” I said, while thinking there was no way in hell I would strut my way into Yom Kippur services wearing it. “You’re overthinking it.” We left the pink yami at home and hit the train into the city.
Sporting a BabyBjörn and bouncing to soothe her child, the rabbi’s wife welcomed us to the service with a well-written invitation to let go of everything we are holding onto and take a deep breath.
They read the “vidui” confession, composed this year by Rabbi Avi Weiss, which invited us as a community to not only remember and confess our wrongdoings, but also what we did right this year.
“We have raised up, we have shown compassion, we have acted enthusiastically”
“We have been empathetic, we have cultivated truth”
“We have given good advice, we have respected, we have learned, we have forgiven”
“We have comforted, we have been creative, we have stirred”
I enjoyed this not just for its intrinsic truthful value, but also because the addition itself is a sign that even for Orthodox Judaism, as the man who was just awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature wrote, “The times, they are a changin’.”
I turned the page to mourner’s Kaddish.
I leaned over to my boyfriend, and in a whisper, explained to him that this is the blessing recited by those who have lost loved ones this year.
I waited for what I imagined would be a handful of people to deliver the prayer. But the rabbi spoke first. “We’ve lost so many lives this year. Lives we didn’t have to lose. So instead of only those who have lost loved ones, everyone will recite the mourner’s Kaddish together.”
Orlando popped into my head and the tears came immediately.
“Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba,” the room recited in unison.
My mouth moved and formed words I have said literally thousands of times before, void of any real meaning.
“B’al’ma di v’ra khir’utei,” we continued.
As each special syllable left my lips, and I tasted the salty stream from my eyes, the words took on more meaning.
“V’yam’likh mal’khutei b’chayeikhon uv’yomeikhon…”
Black Lives. Cops. Names of cities scrolled in my head.
I thought about so many people I know who probably would oppose of this, since maybe it doesn’t strictly adhere to the “halacha” (Jewish code of law) which states that only those mourning a family member should recite the mourner’s Kaddish.
But I couldn’t deny that everything I stand for, everything I am, aligned entirely with this ritual. I felt like I was coming home.
The Kaddish prayer ended and together everyone said, “Amen.”
I have heard this word many thousands of times, but never has it reverberated so strongly. It felt like finding the key to a bolt inside my soul I had given up on ever opening.
I love the name “LAB/SHUL” as it speaks to examining things under a microscope, constantly searching for truer, more meaningful ideas, and it’s also grounded in tradition, with the word “Shul” meaning “Synagogue” in Yiddish.
I said hello to Sandi DuBowski who directed the documentary “Trembling Before G-d.” I told him that when I was a closeted high school student in Seattle, “Trembling” made a profound impact on me.
I remember sitting in the auditorium at Northwest Yeshiva High School — NYHS thinking to my sixteen-year-old self, “Whoa. There are other gay people from Orthodox Jewish backgrounds out there?”
I wiped tears from my face as one at a time, representatives from the Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish communities stood up and lead the congregation in prayer. For unity. Love. And togetherness.
At the end of the service, Amichai focused our attention on the “vav” — the Hebrew letter at the start of the word “v’ahavta” which is generally translated as “and you shall love.” While the “vav” has been translated as “and” or “for,” he shared the translation of “Re.’
To not just love. But to re-love after our love has not been reciprocated. To continually return to love and choose it over the other ways we can react to people. To our families, communities, the world.
“The rest, as our sages teach us,” he explained, “is just details.”
As I sat with my therapist yesterday morning, I shared that for the first time on a Jewish holiday, I felt a unification of all of the separate parts of myself.
Parts of my identity that have felt like a firework, spreading out in separate directions never to be unified in their original packaging ever again.
Thank you LAB/SHUL for your deeply moving service. For having the word “At-one-ment” projected on the screen in front of us all.
After a profoundly meaningful “YK” experience, my boyfriend and I rode the L train back home proudly wearing the kippot we got from LAB/SHUL.
That night, I stood in my apartment across from him, looked down at the kitchen island between us, and saw three kippot. The black one I had brought with me and the two leather ones we acquired at the LAB/SHUL Yom Kippur services.
“Look at that,” I said. “My kippah count is up.”
It took me a moment to realize there was already a big smile on my face.