I Didn’t Go to Services This Year, But…

The holiday season is officially over. And this year, I didn’t go to High Holiday services because even though I took the day off, a slew of meeting invites showed up in my Inbox anyway, and, apparently, I don’t have any boundaries.

I didn’t go to services because if I didn’t go to the meeting that day we’d have to wait a week to hold it, and a whole lot of other things would have to be put on hold, and it might hold my super hard-working team back a lot, and I might collapse under the weight of all the work that needs doing and the guilt around delaying everyone else’s. 

I didn’t go to services this year because every time I logged on to Zoom services I immediately grew restless and twitchy and grief-triggered and I ended up shopping for hoodies on Lululemon.  

I didn’t go to services this year because there were only in-person services for people who were already members of the synagogue and who had been doubly vaccinated, and I am not a member. Instead, I paid $72 for a guest membership to not access a Zoom link. I have never been a member of a synagogue of my own volition or on my own steam, even though I am probably more Jewish than I am anything else – gendered, queer, scholarly – and it’s clear in retrospect that I probably should have gone to Rabbinical school. 

I didn’t go to services because most of the fun of attending is seeing people you’ve known your whole life but never see except for once a year, and running around to find them during bathroom breaks, and lingering outside catching up until well after the services has finished. I didn’t go to services because turning off a zoom and being thrust into silence is the exact opposite of that lingering.

I didn’t go to services because it was hard to face the mortality of the aging population of my family’s shul, who stared down at the zoom controls confusedly on a pantheon of computers located in the dens of the homes I traipsed through in my youth. It was hard to see who is alone now, in front of the Zoom screen. 

But also, I did go to services a little.

I logged on for the half hour between meetings on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which coincided perfectly with the Haftarah, in which Hannah bears her soul to the monk at Shiloh; he mistook her for a drunken woman when in fact the grief at her infertility had made her desperate and unhinged. I thought about all the miracle, last-chance babies my friends and fam had this year, how the stay at home of COVID seemed to provide the space needed to procreate with slightly more quiet if not more peace. And I thought of all these sisters following Hannah’s lead, and the just, long-haired Samuels their children will grow up to be, born of a grief that’s given way to surprise, and the risk of relaxing into joyousness. 

I did go to Kol Nidrei, I even logged on a few minutes early and was treated to a livestream of the sanctuary where the choir and the scant few members who were able to make it in person kibbitzed with each other and found their seats and located their prayer books and unwrapped talits. Several hundred of us gazed at the lucky few with sheer delight, observing others do that thing we used to do way back when.

I did sing out the sins and the shortcomings of my year. I did recall the vows, prohibitions, oaths and consecrations that I took in 5781, and these I did repudiate, render undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void. My vows are no longer vows, my prohibitions no longer prohibitions, my oaths no longer oaths.

I did spend Yom Kippur switching between Zoom services and Leonard Cohen albums, and making a lot of apple cake. 

I did one more thing, too. I invited all of my neighbourhood pals to my backyard to light a Havdalah candle and eat that apple cake. I did watch my children and all their friends and my friends’ faces alight in the glow of the candles, as we adults who knew the words sang the Havdalah, marking the difference between the kodesh and the chol, the sacred from the everyday. I did watch the community we’ve formed out of being a family and loving our neighbours come together in the space we’ve cultivated to hold them. 

One final thing that I did: I stepped firmly into the newness of this new year, unburdened of last year’s ordeals, ready to embrace the fates sealed for me in the book of life. 

Dr. Rachel Berger is a queer femme, a parent of twins, a historian of the body, and a lover of walks living and teaching in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, where she is Associate Professor of  Modern South Asian History at Concordia University. She writes about these topics, intergenerational trauma, critical Jewish parenthood, and queer life in academic and non-academic venues. Come find her on twitter @slantgirl or on instagram @rachel_of_montreal.