by Eric Gabriel Lehman (New York, NY)
It was another Yom Kippur day a year and a half into the pandemic, and for a second time I davened in my dining area’s pop-up shul within sight of my kitchen sink. I scrolled through the Hebrew prayers on my phone, while up on my laptop the cantor, six-sided Keppel on his head and in sneakers, raised arms to his invisible congregation. Forgive our transgressions and our sins; claim us for Your own. The cantor’s music was no easier to resist than some memorized pop song and I sang along, even if the idea of sinning evoked my cigar-smoking grandfather’s sternness rather than my understanding of atonement as reflection and reconsideration. The day plateaued at the Musaf service, after seventeen or so hours of not eating or drinking, brain soft and eyes blurry in the dreamy afternoon light. Later, the dimming sky mirrored the melancholy of a year turning toward fall as we moved toward Ne’ila, whose final shofar blast would end the day like a mighty period. The ark’s opened curtain bared its theatrical cast of Torah scrolls in their embroidered vestments, each pair of rollers adorned with silver rimonim like jewelry. The chanting of the Thirteen Attributes, a threnody enumerating God’s compassion, mercy and grace, always rose like a collective sigh when sung live in the synagogue; my solitary rendition competed with ambulance sirens and the occasional car alarm, yet each attribute pulled me deeper into Ne’ila’s twilight. By the time we approached the edifice of Avinu Malkeinu, I felt ready to slip out of my body. Our Father, Our King, we have sinned in Your presence. Our Father, Our King, we have no sovereign but You. The prayer’s repetitive drumbeat inched me closer to an abyss, just when the seven repetitions of Adonai is God caught me and the final shofar sounding gathered me in its empyrean updraft. That’s when a familiar voice sounded within, half reminder, half reprimand, all party-pooper: You know you don’t really believe.
2020’s initial laptop Yom Kippur experience was imbued with a valiant sense of making do and struggling against the odds—so Jewish. The familiar service was invigorated with novelty. This year’s, however, felt resigned. After an optimistic spring, the emergence of the Delta variant prompted my synagogue to cancel in-person services. Online or no, I donned pants and a dress shirt, in addition to tallit and kippah, as I had the year before, and I set my laptop upon a white tablecloth. Yet the forced retreat to the screen dampened my mood and tarnished Yom Kippur’s messages of hope and regeneration. Each freeze and lag reminded me how artificial the set-up was. When those permitted in the sanctuary laughed at the rabbi’s occasional joke, it sounded canned. The day’s cycle of prayers could have been a recording of the previous year’s services and the bima’s varied offerings of music and talk, a taped rehearsal. I began second-guessing my reactions. Would Avinu Malkeinu with its objectionable image of God as a ruler, bring tears? Would chanting the mantra-like Kaddish still connect me with my father, our relationship as problematic as the Kaddish itself, with its inventory of adulation for a God I’d always found hard to acknowledge? The High Holiday’s through-line of God as king/deliverer/judge demanding appeasement before granting life and health for another year felt like something out of a bad relationship: if I do x for you, regardless of how conflicted I am about it, you will love me. Each time I sang out the name of God I felt either hypocritical, sentimental or just plain lazy, performing by rote. Why, I asked myself, Passover’s wicked son, should a non-believer even utter the name of God at all?
My freshman year of college found me laying tefillin and eating on the kosher meal plan. I was pious enough to balk at singing out Jesus’s birth of a virgin in the Catholic Mass the university’s choir was going to perform in a crucifix-equipped church. (I eventually made my peace by humming the offending text.) I spent many Saturday mornings at the local Chabad House, tucked into a cozy building originally a Taco Bell, where I was drawn into the Lubavitcher’s bracing Chassidism, initially unsettling as a guest who’d shown up at the restrained supper of my Conservative Jewish upbringing and got everyone dancing on the table. The English major I was looked forward to the textual analysis of pilpul—as well as the rib-sticking cholent stew—after Shabbos services. Gradually, however, without my knowing why and unable to stop it, God began fading away. The Chabad rebbe’s express-train mumble of davening came to mean less and less. I couldn’t view Torah as holy writ any more than I could Shakespeare, however fascinating. I enjoyed being in a community of Jews, but like children coming to resent a parent’s interference, I questioned whether God had to be there. Complicating all this were the increasingly louder rumblings of a sexuality I knew the Torah condemned. Was I about to go Reform, with its goyish organ music and English prayers, or worse, become that ultimate sell-out, that pale imitation and oxymoron—the secular Jew?
When the Amtrak train taking me back to school—and to Chabad—after winter break slowed to yet another interminable stop in upstate New York, I found myself before a snow-covered field spread like the blank page of a journal awaiting my pen. I didn’t really know it then, but I was on a long and winding road toward claiming a Jewish identity without God. It would mean improvising and reinventing and some stumbling, but Jews had figured out how to remain Jewish without a temple and survived the Spanish Inquisition, hadn’t they? The snow stretched toward a lonely horizon line; I would miss Chabad House’s rowdy little stetl across from campus, cholent and all. The train’s sudden jostle into motion registered surprise at my conclusion. I had been brought up to believe in the evils of intermarriage and the ultimate sin of conversion, which my eight-year-old self once envisioned as lifelong exile from our apartment into the drafty, grimy hallway of our building in the Bronx. Yet even cast out into the cold, the air would be the same, I reasoned; I would keep on breathing. Even more surprising than this conclusion was how obvious it was. I wouldn’t experience anything as exhilarating yet straightforward until I came out.
Years later, beside him during an Orthodox High Holiday service after my mother died, my father commented that he never once heard me praying, even though he knew I read Hebrew. His was scanty; he depended on me to speak to God for the both of us. But I refused, determined to remain true to my Amtrak revelation. I should have realized that hearing the prayers out of my mouth might have soothed not hearing his wife’s voice from the other side of the mechitza, where she’d always sat. So there we were, two Jews stranded on islands of stubbornness and sadness, close enough to hear each other’s silence amidst so many full-throated affirmations of a God my father and I couldn’t or wouldn’t address, respectively.
This Yom Kippur, God’s name sounded especially distant through my laptop’s speaker. An all-powerful being able to create or destroy at will, unbeholden to any principle of justice other than its own, seemed unfathomable, even cruel, in the age of COVID. Such a God, supremely untouched by day-to-day turmoil, a remote, disinterested party, the very definition of a stranger, seemed unworthy of Yom Kippur’s abundant praise. Jonah’s story, read that afternoon, came across as an object lesson in the arbitrary nature of divine intervention, by turns micromanaging or else absent when needed. Such a mercurial, prissy God dipped no more than a toe into the messy world he was credited with creating, if systemic racism, climate catastrophe and imperiled democracy worldwide—for starters—were any indications. Like those able to retreat from COVID-plagued cities, he skipped town.
The concluding prayers, with their many references to the book of life closing and the gates of heaven shutting, lent the gloaming of this past Yom Kippur a particularly end-of-time, Götterdämmerung feel. The yahrzeit candles lit for my parents had already burned low, the sounds of traffic out my window sank to a hush and the cantor’s voice sounded roughened by thirst. As the time for Avinu Malkeinu and the seven repetitions of Adonai is God approached, an ecstatic yearning I recognized from sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat chanting the Gayatri mantra or some other trayf snippet of Hindu spiritual embroidery overcame me. This troubled year, however, my mood gave me pause. Once, fearful of blasphemy, I resisted evoking the name of Jesus in the Mass, whose Latin I understood, but could I utter the name of God with a full heart in another language I knew if I didn’t really believe?
There in my dining area, body and mind—and for all I knew, soul—fragile and bowed beneath the full weight of the past eighteen months, I did what I hadn’t done in that Riverdale shul beside my father: utter the name of God. The God I named was no omnipotent force or intercessionist agent but what Sufis refer to as The One, the perfection of love, the embodiment of wisdom and compassion I might also embody. Such a name was shorthand for the divine in all of us; those Thirteen Attributes were our birthright, after all. The name of God I repeated seven times in a hoarse voice acknowledged the ineffable in lives often too encumbered and limited by what we are so sure we understand, sometimes to catastrophically shortsighted effect. I let myself tear up singing the Avineu Malkeinu loud enough to drown out my neighbor’s barking dog, part catharsis, part resolve. I will do better. We must do better. Then I recited the Kaddish’s many praises of God not only for my parents and grandparents and two cousins and a friend and someone from work but for my world in mourning, in pain, and sorely in need of healing.
Eric Gabriel Lehman has published novels, short stories, and essays. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Brooklyn Rail, Raritan, and elsewhere. He teaches at Queens College/CUNY in New York, where he lives. You can find him online at Twitter (@eglehman1) and can reach him via email: Eric.Lehman@qc.cuny.edu