A Goy Girl's Guide to Yom Kippur
Sunday night at sundown will mark the beginning of the Jewish fast of Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement. As a child growing up as a Christian I was always fascinated by this holiday celebrated by my religious cousins. It seemed to me to be the solemn yang to the celebratory ying of Rosh Hashanah, the Judaic New Year. (Hurrah! A new start!…Quick, get rid of all last year’s crap!) Being that both Christianity and Judaism are heavy on the sin and guilt, I felt a natural draw towards a major religious holiday that wiped the slate clean and let everyone start over. It seemed to me that having a day of forgiveness as an official holiday must be a big relief!
Many Jews must feel a similar happy relief at Yom Kippur, as synagogue attendance swells to two to three times it’s average numbers, and many secular Jews return for traditional prayers and rituals. Like most ancient rites, Yom Kippur is complex and includes fasting, ritualized bathing, chanting, confessions, blessings and more. Obviously, I’m not going to be able to get it all down pat. So here’s what this goy girl will do to mark Yom Kippur as a day of forgiveness and new beginnings, influenced heavily by my Soulsister Rachel Barenblat and her article 13 Ways of Looking at Yom Kippur.
1. Fasting: After an early supper with friends Sunday night I will complete a cleansing fast for 24 hours. I like how fasting is a physical sign of a spiritual process, literally clearing out the body as one focuses on cleansing the soul.
2. Wearing White. Donning white on Yom Kippur reminds us of both beginnings (marriage gowns) and ending (death shrouds). This is what we are, we humans, an endless cycle of dreamy promises and epic failures. But rather than lamenting this as a short falling, this year I will celebrate the reality that we are indeed like this --- this messed up, this clumsy, this awful -- and inversely that we are this wonderfully resilient, this insatiable, this determined to be our best self. Rachel says it better:
“Yom Kippur is a day for holding opposites in tension. Take the custom of wearing white (some men wear a white kittel; Hasidim and Renewalniks dress in all-white, as we do to welcome the Shabbat bride.) White is at once the color of weddings (when we make promises to one another) and the color of our burial shrouds (when all our promises become void). Our promises are unreal and unsustainable because we are dust -- and yet we make those promises and they matter deeply, because we are little less than angels.
To put it bluntly, we are angels with anuses. This is our central tension: that on the one hand we are holy beings, made in God's image and aspiring to holiness, and on the other hand we are corporeal beings who have to eat and excrete, who suffer and die. It's our job to balance those two realities -- though on Yom Kippur we aspire to live out our angelic nature for one long day of praise.”
3.Bathing: The ritualized Mikvah bath is beyond my reach, but I will submerge myself in a body of water today. If possible I will dip into the Oresound, but if the rain pours down I’ll probably bail out and allow the beautiful, silent grey-tile pool of my health club suffice. I’ll dip under the water four times, trying to echo the minhag ha-makon, a symbolic purification of body, heart, mind and spirit. Again, I love what Rachel has to say:
“Water, Rabbi Jill Hammer reminded us, is a solvent; it dissolves the spiritual schmutz we need to release. Also, water is where we come from -- both on a personal level, in the womb, and in a primordial sense, thinking back to the origins of life on earth.
Jumping into the water felt fantastic. It was soft and gentle, almost silky against my skin. I swam a little ways out, listening to the whoops and hollers and splashes. … Throughout, I kept thinking about how they say you can't jump in the same river twice. And it's true: in subtle ways I am not the same person who immersed in this lake last month before Shabbat or last October before Yom Kippur. But I carry those immersions with me -- the sweet sparkling feeling they engender -- and now I will carry this one, likely my last time touching living water until spring.”
4. Putting on Something New: According to Rachel, there are there new beginnings offered by her Rabbi each year:
“In Renewal circles, a Torah service generally involves three aliyot (sections of Torah), and each one is matched with a kavanah, an intention. Those who identify with that intention, or wish to receive its particular blessing, come up as a group to bless the Torah and to be blessed in return.”
In the morning Torah services, the first aliyah was for knowing we can bring our whole selves to our holy work; the second, for reclaiming the gifts that were ours but we cast them away; the third, for being an ish iti, a timely person connected with rhythms and cycles.”
I am accepting the second aliyah this year": “I reclaim the gifts that were mine which I cast away. (Or let others take from me.)” When I arise out of the water on Yom Kippur, this is what I will wear. This is what I will walk with this year --- even though I may face Gremlins, even though I may struggle with the Imposter Syndrome, even though I may at times think I am not enough. The aliyah says I can live otherwise, and for this I will wear white, to this I will make vows. To this I say “I give thee my troth.”
How will you celebrate Yom Kippur this year? What will you leave behind? What will you see redeemed? Please share with us in the comments below.
Other Resources for Yom Kippur:
If you are Jewish but live far from a synagogue: A Grab-Bag of Resources for Yom Kippur
If you want to learn an interfaith practice: Christians In Solidarity with Jews on Yom Kippur, A Liturgy
Rachelle Mee-Chapman is a soulcare specialist, writer, and mother of several. Rooted in Seattle she’s now living the expat life in Copenhagen, Denmark. You can find her at Magpie Girl, follow her on Twitter, or friend her on Facebook. Thank you for being here!