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Ten Years Later: The High Holidays for an Ex-Orthodox Jew


2007, The Peak of My Religious Piety: It’s 11pm on Yom Kippur eve, but I’m not that tired. I reach for a book about rabbis from the Talmud. There’s one about a rabbi who confronts a Roman empress:

Roman empress scoffs: “What does your God do all day?”

Rabbi answers even-temperedly: “God makes matches between man and woman.”

I believe, with a kind of simple faith that’s synonymous with virgins from Laura Ingalls Wilder-esque novels, that God has made my match. I’ll meet him when I’m approximately 20.

But no later than 22. I silently cry. There’s little room at the High Holiday hearth for a female singleton.

I chase any vestige of fear by reciting the whole entire shema prayer and by learning two pages of the Chofetz Chaim’s “Guard Your Tongue.” I gently wrap a blanket over my chin and breathe happily: There. I’m amassing good deeds so that I can soon be a young Jewish bride.

I don’t know yet that I’ll spend the next 8 years as an untouched, un-romanced woman.

2017, The Peak of Newfound Secular Living: It’s 11pm on Rosh Hashanah eve and I’m alone in my apartment. I watched Stephen King’s It a couple of weeks ago. I’ve slept with a light on since because—yes—the thought of a fictional demonic clown is still too terrible to bear in the dark. My roommates will murder me after reading September’s electricity bill. I’m scared of them too.

And are you not scared of God’s wrath? My brain suddenly shrills. His vengeful wrath as he smites you for being so apathetic on His New Year? He’ll punish you and deprive you of love, luck, and—I try to shut it up.

After watching Netflix’s Jerry Before Seinfeld, it finally dials down to a background murmur. Irreverent Jews will always find comfort in one another. Thanks, Jer.

I manage to sleep.


2007: Walking to shul on Yom Kippur morning, I cross paths with a dark-eyed, charmingly scruffed yeshiva boy. When you’re a hetero 17 girl surrounded by only women every day, almost all XY chromosomes emanate sexy musk from their pores. I grow excited.

He’s wearing a black hat and his eyes are pinned to the ground. He can’t bear to look at my hands or face—the only parts of my body that are naked. Everything else (from collarbone to toes) is safely tucked away under a long sheath, patiently awaiting God’s blessing.

I avert my eyes from him too. We’re both conscious of this aversion and it’s so beautifully awkward.

2017: It’s Yom Kippur morning and I’ll walk towards a Dunkin Donuts. (Thank God I won’t allow the Day of Judgement to infringe on my iced latte cravings.) Men will trek back from shul. I’ll worry that they’ll smell my crushing pile of sin. They’ll know, through some inexplicable Jew-y antenna of theirs, that I used to be a servant of Hashem. I’ll pull up my yoga pants to expose less belly.

After I pick up that iced latte, the paranoia will fade. They’re too fixated on their growling stomachs to care about your sin, you self-absorbed little girl. Caffeine works wonders in tethering me to reality.

After a latte, I’ll meet my boyfriend and kiss him three times on his cushion-like lips. Make that ten times. No—20. Lawless lovers will always discover peace in one another.


2007: Religious Jews are advised not to nap on Rosh Hashanah because it can foreshadow a spiritual lassitude or a physical fatigue that may hang upon them for the rest of the year. Sans nap, TV, or phone, my friends and I have stretches of time to fill before another holiday dinner. We decide to stroll on Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway and schmooze like a couple of bubbies:

Me: “In shul today, almost all the women were wearing Valentino heels and Chanel dresses. Why does shul have to be a fashion show?”

Tali: “It’s loshon hora (gossip) to talk about people like that in your shul! Please stop! It’s Rosh Hashanah!”

Me: “Alright.”

But I hate this. I want my friends and I to be walking copies of an Ok! Magazine: equal parts disgusting and unbridled fun. There’s isn’t any laughter on these days. Always somber. Always serious. I scream internally.

Is this the scream bubble that germinates my inevitable dissent? Perhaps.

2017: This Rosh Hashanah, my boyfriend and I lazily lounge on the couch, our conversation quickly taking the pleasurable shape of gossip. But I soon cut the verbal whippings about neighbors, co-workers, and acquaintances short.

“Why?” he asks.

“Because it’s Rosh Hashanah and the pintele Yid, the ‘little Jew,’ does not die.”

My Bais Yaakov teachers warned me about the pintele Yid: “Even the most filthy, immoral Jew will always contain a spark of God,” they said. Now, I know.

Neilah, the Climax of the High Holidays:

2007: I stand united with my congregation. Yom Kippur is racing to the finish line. The heavenly gates are quickly locking, our fates quickly solidifying. Quivers of desperation ripple through the sick, the anxious, the poor, the lonely. For a moment, my burning tears speak when I cannot. For a moment, I see God eagerly collecting our collapsing bodies into his expansive chest. For a moment, we fit.

2017: It’s the last hour of Yom Kippur, the moment when spiritual listlessness crawls up my skin like a hot rash.

As a distraction, I turn to social media. There’s more news about Kylie Jenner’s pregnancy. And I think: How can I daven to a God that allows the Kardashians to infest the world’s collective newsfeed every minute? I grow increasingly fatalistic. And then nihilistic.

But cynicism crumples upon itself to expose a little girl mourning a faith that once felt like home. What do you do when you no longer believe, but miss believing?

I sigh and then slip on my headphones; I know, at the very least, that God is unblemished in music. This turns into passionate, fastidious prayer.

Rebecca Mordechai has an MA in English Literature and used to teach teens. But now she writes about her ever-evolving identity and lots of other Jewy things.

Image via Pixabay

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