Caught Between Skepticism and Yearning on the Holidays

Like a lot of American Jews, I have a complicated relationship to Jewish worship. Unlike most American Jews, it got complicated enough at one point that I wrote to a dog for advice. 

Now, Tango isn’t just any dog. He’s a very wise pitbull who lives with a very wise friend of mine, Margie, in St. Paul, Minnesota. And the occasion wasn’t just any holiday, but Yom Kippur 2014, when all I wanted to do was hide in my apartment for 25 hours. My friend Margie announced that her dog was starting a new career as an advice columnist (yes, this really happened). Did I want to ask him a question? I once went all the way from New York City to Hoboken to talk to a psychic. Of course I wanted to ask Margie’s dog for advice. 

I needed it, because every year, as one holiday flows into another, my cozy, extremely Jewish corner of the world starts to feel like a prison. The neighborhood is so Jewish that my usual haunts feel more like stations in a Yiddish panoptikon, patrolled by bored Jews in itchy clothes and crocs. On Yom Kippur in particular, I can’t help but suspect they’re all judging me as I make my way to the cafe, judging me for choosing to be less miserable than they are. But if I’m choosing to be less miserable, why am I still so miserable? I decided to ask Tango.

Dear Tango, 

With the days of awe approaching me, I confront the same problem I have every year. I live a deeply Jewish life in a Jewish neighborhood with a close, wonderful circle of committed Jews with a rich variety of practice and knowledge. 

So what’s the problem? I didn’t grow up religious. I never got the habit for living my life, even for a day or two at a time, according to religious dictates. And, despite my interest in the paranormal, my mind balks at the thought of following ridiculous rules to please an imaginary and capricious God. Very little about being religious, or observing Jewish law, appeals to me. And more pertinently, I hate going to synagogue. The thought makes me itchy. Moreover, I absolutely cannot fast.

And yet. I want the benefits of being part of community, of submitting to ancient practices, of having those prayers and texts as familiar to me as every Simpsons episode is now. I want to experience the communal catharsis of that final shofar blasts of Neilah, when hunger and thirst convince you the gates of heaven may just be closing on a judgment in your favor. I want so many contradictory things I can’t even begin to figure out what to do.

Tango, I’ve already submitted my vacation request, like I do every year. I can’t go to work. But I also can’t make myself go to synagogue (for more than an hour or two.)

Help me Tango! How do I resolve all these conflicting threads?

-Generic Anonymous Name

I notice the word ‘itchy’ comes up a lot when I talk about my synagogue anxiety. I think it goes back to the excitement of buying a new ‘Temple’ outfit every year. I’m an 80s kid, and in my mind I’m still I’m sitting in a pew, dressed up in a brand new Benetton sweater dress, purchased for a crisp fall morning that was still many, many weeks away. 

There I am, packed into a pew with my similarly bored family, shvitzing like crazy, gawking at the garish makeup on the women around me, and counting the minutes until we would all be out of our misery. 

I’m an adult now, so no one can make me wear a sweater before the first morning frost. There’s no reason I can’t go as far away as possible for the yomtoyvim. In 2016, I spent Kol Nidre in a London pub with one set of lefty Jewish friends and “broke the fast” at a North London Chinese buffet with a couple of the Jewdas folks (no, Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t there). In between these celebrations, I communed with the mummies at the British Museum and reveled in my extreme lack of angst. But did I really have to travel of thousands of miles away from friends and loved ones to escape my problem with Jewish worship?

In 2018 my feelings around Yom Kippur got notably angrier. I may have raised a few eyebrows when I tweeted before Kol Nidre that I would not be humbling myself before a god who would allow a child-abusing monster into the most powerful office in the world. Hashem? F that dude, I tweeted, with my usual subtlety. I didn’t bother to move my therapy appointment so it wouldn’t overlap with pretending to care about synagogue. As I walked down the street in clothes far from itchy, I felt defiant: let the entire Upper West Side know I wouldn’t be groveling before any judge, Heavenly, District Court or Supreme. 

And yet, I missed something. Starting in the late 1880s radical Jews started organizing Yom Kippur balls, epic parties meant to demonstrate the participants’ emancipation from what they saw as old fashioned and stultifying tradition. As Eddy Portnoy notes, what was essential to those balls was first, that they were communal affairs and second, those participating had something to rebel against. So where does that leave the solo abstainer a hundred years later?

Which brings me back to Tango:

Dear Generic Anonymous Name,

I note that your initials spell Gan, Garden in Hebrew, and by extension, a reference to Paradise. I submit to you, GAN, just as your name suggests the Garden of Eden, where there was no conflict, there is no dire conflict at hand. That you even take the time submitting your question to me, Tango the Pitbull, shows that you are connected to Klal Yisroel, which is the most important aspect of being a Jew.

As Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, taught, the fundamentals of Jewishness lie in the following order of importance: Belonging, Behaving, Believing.


You mention threads in your letter, which remind me of my associate Margie’s father, of blessed memory, who was a tailor. He was a man who accumulated wisdom in the most extreme circumstances imaginable. He would often say, “Don’t be holier than the Pope.” Follow his advice, don’t worry about belief, or following every mitzvah, or sitting in shul all day. To bring up another holiday, think about the words of “Dayenu”—“it would have been enough,” referring to all the wondrous deeds that (the possibly imaginary and capricious) God has done for us. But there is another way to read Dayenu-You are enough.

Reader, I would be lying if I told you I didn’t tear up reading You are enough. We make ourselves so crazy trying to square the circle of our own beliefs with the formal rituals and communities available to us. This is especially true, I think, those of us who feel our background or personalities leave us inadequately prepared for communal ritual. 

Now the long spate of holidays is over. But my deepest wish is that a year from now I (and you) will not have as much reason to be angry but even more so, that I will be more at peace, personally, and more at ease with the community that’s there for me—if I want it.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.