Yom Kippur as Manifest in an Approaching Dorsal Fin
In honor of the holiday, I’m posting my friend Adam Byrn Tritt’s essay, “Yom Kippur as Manifest in an Approaching Dorsal Fin.” It’s from his book of the same name, a collection that explores—in essays, poems, and creative nonfiction—the tension between cultural heritage and contemporary society, between religion and spirituality, between the family you inherit and the family you create. As it says on the back of the book, “From early-morning wrestlings with God to portraits of three remarkably different family funerals, from Kabbalist chants at a pagan bookstore to the humorous ‘What Do Jews Do on Christmas?,’ Tritt’s writing taps into themes nearly universal in today’s world in ways that will resonate with readers of all backgrounds and faiths—or no faith at all.” Obligatory disclaimer: I’m the guy who published the book. But I was a fan of his for many years before I became his publisher.
It is Yom Kippur. A Monday. I have taken the day off work to walk, meditate, think. I have taken the day off work so I could go to temple the night before and not worry about the time, the hour, how late it was getting, when I would need to get up.
We asked our friends to go with us. In our back yard, playing with clay, our conversation set on cognates and religion. I mentioned the Buddha of compassion, Amitabha, and the other name for him, Amida. How the Amidah is the name of a prayer of compassion during Yom Kippur. How it relates to the fruit, almonds, as the ancient Hebrews saw the almond as a symbol for watchfulness, promises, and redemption. How the part of the brain which we know to be the seat of our ability to see things in a global, compassionate way is called the amygdala, from the Greek amugdalē, meaning almond. Craig started talking about the Kol Nidre prayer and, being Craig, translated it for us and we sat, transfixed, as often we do listening to Craig. Lee, Evanne, Beth, and I, listening to Craig.
Of course we listen to Craig. He, translator of dead languages. He, who juggles biblical text back and forth from language to language, from meaning to meaning as if the passages are but palm-sized bean bags. He, of three books of translations. Yes, we listen when he speaks.
As we talked, we discovered he had never been to temple, had never actually listened to the Kol Nidre. Neither had Beth, nor Evanne—and that, of course, was not a surprise, growing up in the Midwest: Ohio and Nebraska, Methodist. Right then, we asked if they’d like to go with us this Yom Kippur, to the Kol Nidre service: the only one we go to.
They were surprised. Craig said he was honored. Evanne agreed with a clear look of shock on her face. Beth asked if we’re sure it was OK and told us how special it was to be asked, how appreciated it was.
That was months ago. We asked the small, local temple if we could come and bring three guests. No problem. May we have their names, and do they have any departed they would like Yizkor candles for? Yes. We were set to go.
Erev Yom Kippur arrives. Lee is under the weather and cannot go. She asks that I go anyway and I resist but she does not want to disappoint our friends.
Evanne worries whether she should have her hair covered. Beth is concerned she looks like “a goy.” Lee tells her, jokingly, that she should proudly announce she is a shiksa. I suggest against it and let them know it is an honor that they are going and the congregation would be overjoyed they are there.
They are worried. No need to dress well, not for this congregation. But they do, and Beth’s high heels put her so high above me she has to bend over and I must tip myself up on my toes to kiss her on the cheek.
Both wear black, notice their shoes are made of leather, and point out they have worn black once they discover the color of the holy day is white. No one will be following all these rules. No one will notice.
Evanne, married, wears a scarf on her head, long and flowing, tied into her hair, nearly as long, nearly to her thighs. She could be Golda and Tevye’s shorter, forgotten daughter. She could be from the shtetle. No one will guess she isn’t Jewish. Beth actually looks Jewish and no one tells her this. How to explain what that looks like?
Craig fits in perfectly but is wearing shoes for the first time in, perhaps, more than a year. I offer him one of my tallit (prayer shawls) and a kipa I think will fit him well, gold and silver. He tells me again he is honored to be invited and I am privileged to give him my tallis to wear.
We arrive, are greeted, take prayer books, and I search for a large print version, find one, enter, find a place in the pews close to the front. Myself, Evanne, Beth, and Craig. I leave space to my right, where Lee would sit, where I would be able to see her.
We talk, discuss translation, Craig notices the Kol Nidre in the prayer book is not translated literally and, a game of telephone, shows me the text clues by showing Beth who shows Evanne who shows me, differences in font, serif versus sans serif, that tell a careful reader what is a translation and what is a paraphrase.
This congregation, Mateh Chaim, has as yet no home. And yet we have been welcomed even though we swell their ranks and the available room. Even though there are non-Jews among us who need not be here. The congregation is growing and hopes to have a home, but there is, in thoughtful congregations, a balance between the need for a building and the needs of community: the understanding that an edifice takes money which many of the people here tonight don’t have. It is the only congregation in Palm Bay. It meets tonight in a Methodist church. Behind the portable ark, containing the Torah, is a twenty-foot cross. It is not the building that makes a congregation.
I do not mind this so much. We talk, quietly, as we would before any service. Evanne tells us she is glad to see me misbehaving as usual as it puts her at ease.
“Misbehaving?” I ask. She answers I have said “ass” twice since sitting down in the pews. She says it like this: “You said a-$-$ twice since sitting your a-$-$ down.” Silly. Anglo Saxon not allowed for a Methodist?
I think, momentarily, of our Yom Kippur in North Carolina. We were alone. No one around us had an understanding. I listened to Kol Nidre on Internet radio.
Joel Fleishman had a similar experience on the television program Northern Exposure in an episode called “Shofar, So Good” (1994) when, on Yom Kippur, he was visited by Rabbi Schulman. Our program opens with Joel, physician to Cicely, Alaska, carbo-loading in preparation for his day of fasting. He is attempting to explain Yom Kippur to the ever-interested residents as they eat at the Brick, the inn and tavern, and has little success. This is mostly because he has only a tenuous, superficial understanding himself. He knows the words, he knows the rules and proscriptions, takes care to keep the fast, not wash, not to care for personal convenience, to give the day up to feeling keenly, sharply one’s place in the world and relationship to God and our fellows. He sees the holiday as a noun with a set of rules, not a verb with a set of tools. To Joel, it is no longer a living tradition, and he does not know what to do with it. On top of this, he is lonely for those who know his tradition.
Our Good Doctor Joel, while in the midst of his fast, was visited by the Good Rabbi Schulman who, as surprised as Joel, was lifted by a shaft of light and deposited in Cicely to help Joel understand what Yom Kippur is really about, and Dr. Fleishman begins the process of making amends. It is a journey, a Hebrew Dickensian vision quest, which starts with the Good Rabbi occupying the space of the top head of a totem pole. Jews, after all, are tribal too.
Not too surprisingly, the characters on the show who understand Yom Kippur best are the shamans.
But I am not alone and I revel in this. Craig tells us the history of the Kol Nidre. The actual translation, the “Kol Nidre controversy” surrounding just what the proper place and ramification of the prayer is.
Kol nidre means “all vows,” and it absolves us of vows and promises made that we needed to make to survive but knew were wrong. It apologizes and gives release from the many times we said Yes when we wanted to say No, but did not because our jobs, food on the table, roofs over our heads, our safety, our security meant we had to say one thing, do one thing, when another was what we knew was proper.
He explains, my teaching middle school is my Kol Nidre. My giving grades, requiring students to do what they have no desire to, that is my Kol Nidre. When I teach them to pass a test when they want to learn creativity, that is my Kol Nidre. When I do that which I must to put bring food and security, when I do not call those around me on their actions because I must protect my job, that is my Kol Nidre. When I do not, can not, must not act in accordance with my true self: my Kol Nidre. When I do something I must instead of write and create. Kol Nidre.
Evanne points out that is exactly what the abbot at the Thai Buddhist temple told me, that I was doing what I needed to and need only recognize that and the needs of fitting into our community and of survival and taken into account in the realm of Karma.
Yet even those vows I take seriously. I uttered them. And so the Kol Nidre also protects us from ourselves; we make this prayer because we take vows so seriously that we consider ourselves bound even if we make them under duress or in times of stress when we are not thinking straight.
The Rabbi, Fred Natkin, walks up to the bima (stage) and we look around. No fashion show here. Women in pants, men in dungarees, vests. Hats instead of kipas. I have done this as well as it is more comfortable, does not fall off, shades my eyes when reading. Many women have Tallit and that is a sure sign of a rather liberal welcoming congregation.
The service starts and it is with great participation of the congregation, coming up to the bima, sitting down again after hugs and kisses. Always each moment, each prayer ends with hugs and kisses among all those on the bima. Evanne asks me if this is important. Among many liberal congregations, this is common, important, this contact and affection. I say it is a fitting way to end a prayer to love each other and who are we to argue, and I lean over and kiss Evanne on the cheek.
The congregation prays, meditates, responds; the rabbi sings, chants.
The time has come for the sermon. The rabbi speaks of science fiction. Reads a letter written by him to the neighboring Moslem congregation offering aid and friendship after a shooting into the mosque this week. He is offering for the descendants of the two sons of Abraham, the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael, to make peace and fight together for justice. The Jewish high holy days and Ramadan started the same day. We have the same goals. The president of the congregation writes his thanks, appreciation, and friendship in a letter to the newspaper, thanking the rabbi and congregation. He reminds us we must make the world the heaven we wish it to be. It is our job and what we are chosen to do. That we do not pray for peace, but pray to be peace. That Judaism is a religion of verbs. The prayers re-commence.
The Kol Nidre is sung. There are two tunes for this prayer. I was taught by a rabbi there is magic in the tunes themselves, in the music, so, if one does not know the words, hum, dai de dai, la la la, and that is good and will do the trick. But I want to sing and this is the other tune, the one Lee knows. It is the Sephardic tune, I believe, the one from the Middle East and not the Ashkenazic tune of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. I do my best. Craig knows the words but does not sing, unfamiliar with the tune even more than I. Evanne, somehow, reads more loudly than others, seems to fit, sounds clear, and I am frequently amazed by this.
More prayers, meditations, the Amidah and call for compassion. I feel this prayer as I did the Kol Nidre and look for my wife, see the empty space. I think of my own Yom Kippur prayer. And when I have trouble following along, I recite it to myself:
We open our mouths to proclaim how beautiful the world is, how sweet life is and how dear to us you are, Lady, Mother of All Living.
We stand here today to remind ourselves that we are all part of this web of creation. We are all linked, so that what any of us do affects all of us, and that we are all responsible for the Earth, and each other. We have chosen to be here today as a symbol of our commitment, our awareness of this connection.
Even so, we forget our promises and our duties.
We gossip, we mock, we jeer.
We quarrel, we are unkind, we lie.
We neglect, we abuse, we betray.
We are cruel, we hate, we destroy.
We are careless, we are violent, we steal.
We are jealous, we oppress, we are xenophobic.
We are racist, we are sexist, we are homophobic.
We waste, we pollute, we are selfish.
We disregard the sufferings of others, we allow others to suffer for our ignorance and our pride.
We hurt each other willingly and unwillingly.
We betray each other with violence and with stealth.
And most of all, we resist the impulse to do what we know is good, and we do not resist the impulse to do what we know is bad.
All this we acknowledge to be true, and we do not blame the mirror if the reflection displeases.
Lady, help us to forgive each other for all we have done and help us to do better in the coming year. Bring us into harmony with the Earth and all Her ways.
So mote it be!
In this prayer, we admit we are not perfect and proclaim we will make good on our mistakes even if we are not aware we have made them. We all make such mistakes. Such is the friction, the dukkuh as the Tibetans call it, of life. And we must have the compassion for others to apologize, to make amends, person to person. If we do not, we cannot go into the new year. If they do not accept, the guilt is on their heads if, and only truly if, we have honestly done our best to make amends.
We must also have compassion for ourselves and the ways we have transgressed against ourselves. Such is the message of the Amidah and Kol Nidre; we can start over and do better. Such is the message from Amida, Amitabha.
And we are cognizant we have made mistakes we are unaware of individually. For these, we say a prayer and ask forgiveness not of God, but of each other and offer our forgiveness as well.
More meditations, kisses, hugs. Then the Mourner’s Kaddish, and I quietly remind those with me this is what they gave those the names of the departed for. I think of those I have lost and feel keenly the empty space next to me, where my wife should be, and move slightly over more, closer to Evanne, leaving more room for my absent wife as though I was looking to be able to see her as I sang, but could not find her. I am missing her and think, sadly, at some point this space will be open, open and empty and not fillable. Thus says this prayer.
And with this, service ends. Craig mentions how so many of these prayers have been taken, nearly without change, for Christian services. Beth feels the continuity with the Methodist services with which she is familiar. We exit, putting our books back as we do, and head back to the house.
Lee greets us outside, still not feeling well but wanting to be social to a degree. I am grateful, and tell my friends so, that I was able to go to temple with those I love even when my own dear was at home. I was able to share this evening with them, this prayer, this holy day. I am grateful to them and happy.
They had said it was an honor to be asked. That night they repeated their gratitude and surprise. It is I who am grateful. It is I who am honored. It is I who am, again, surprised, amazed, and smiling. I hold them both and say thank you, then smile as they drive away.
* * * * *
Today I stay home for Yom Kippur. I do not go to temple, however. I plan to write, run, walk, meditate, remain quiet.
I get ready to go to the beach. On days like this I am reminded of some of the perks to living in Florida. It is October and I am going for a run on the beach. My ancestors would already be cold, wearing thick coats and having long collected the winter wood. I will be running by the waves wearing as little as I can get away with. I say to Lee, listening, that it is too hot to wear dungaree shorts, the only kind I have. I have two swimsuits, both old, hardly worn but seeming worn, nonetheless, elastics given up their ability to stretch, become brittle.
I have not purchased any in years and told myself I would not until my weight was down to where I wanted it. I might have to go back and revisit that idea. They were too small for years and I would not go to the beach. Now they are too big and are unfit, do not fit, I put on the one with the best elastic. My wife shakes her head. No? Why not? Does it have a lining? No. She tells me I have lost weight and that will lead to needing a lining if I am planning on going running. She does not want me to be uncomfortable or, worse, injure myself, telling me the fat I used to have kept some things in place and, without that weight, I’ll want that lining as I go jangling up and down. I put on the other suit and it falls off. It has a cord, I pull it tight. It still hangs a bit and I’ll need a new suit soon.
I go off to Melbourne Beach and leave everything, including my sandals, in the car. Keys, wallet, glasses. I put about fifty cents in the meter and get one hour and fifteen minutes for my coins. I did not take sunscreen so I leave my shirt on, planning to take it off if I get too hot.
It is bright, clear, brilliant and the beach is quiet and nearly empty. I head to the shoreline and walk, briskly, south.
I practice an exercise as I go called the Walk for Atonement. At-one-ment, removing separation. Becoming one with what is around me, with the world and all that is in it. With time and space. If we felt at one with all things, who would we, who could we, hurt?
What is our place in this world? What is our place, in context to all that is? I walk. With my steps, I contemplate spans of time. A day. What does a day feel like? What does it feel like to exist a day? A year. How does a year feel? Ten years. Can I feel ten years? How plastic I am. How much one can change in ten years.
I do this every year. From then to one hundred. This year, I add fifty years. Fifty years. I am approaching that and can feel it. It is not far beyond my span now and I can understand that in a personal context. One hundred years. What does that feel like? I have and had relatives nearly that old. One thousand years. I can understand this historically but what does it feel like? I am uncertain. My place in it is, or can be, nearly a tenth. But how much a part do I actually play? My grasp on it is tenuous. Ten thousand years. Again, historically, I have an idea. Personally, it is too vast, too long. I have no context. What is my place in that span of time? Nearly none. One hundred thousand? None. None at all. A million?
As I reach a million, I see something I have never seen but which is astonishingly familiar in the water a scant twenty feet from me: a triangular dorsal fin, a triangular tail fin, both moving gracefully in the water so close if I wanted to, if I were fool enough, I could walk out to it and barely have my calves half-covered by ocean. This is amazingly close for a shark.
I stand and watch. This is an interruption in the flow of the meditation. Or is it? A shark comes so close as I contemplate a million years and this seems like a message. It feels like a hello from distance of time and I can see, now, what that million years looks like. I cannot go to it so it, instead, has come to me. Today.
I am aware of a person next to me, fewer than a few feet away. “Is that what I think it is?”
What else could he be asking? It is safe, I imagine, to answer in the affirmative. “Yes.”
“I was going to go swimming.”
“Still going to?”
“I just moved here. This is my first time at the beach. Are they out there all the time?”
“Are you asking me if there are always sharks out there, or if death is always fewer than twenty feet away and swimming around us?”
He stares at me.
“The answer is yes to both,” I tell him. “You’re just getting to see it today. Welcome to Florida. If you plan on hiking instead, remember, we’re the only state with all four kinds of venomous snakes.”
He walks off.
I continue my walk. With each step I think of a person I have wronged. I apologize. With the next step, I forgive myself as well. I do this until I can think of no more people, but I am human and I must have hurt more people than I think simply by the act of living. I apologize, with each step, contemplating the many ways we hurt each other and never know it, cannot help it. And, when this is done, forgive myself.
As I continue to walk, I think of each person I know has hurt me. I forgive them. It no longer matters. In the span of time, what could it matter? If they have not admitted guilt, what does it matter? I forgive them. I forgive them all. If I have thought badly of them for the wrong they have done, for this, even, I apologize and forgive myself.
Why carry guilt? Why carry anger? Why carry a careless word? Of what use is it in the span of years? A million years, and how long am I here? There is a shark in the water.
Ga-te, ga-te, Pāra-ga-te, Pāra-sam-ga-te, Bodhi svā-hā. Gone, gone. Beyond gone. Past beyond gone. There is enlightenment.
I start to run. Barefoot I pad the sand beneath me. Step by step following the mean line of the surf. If the waves come in further, I lift my legs higher, pull up my knees, splash as each sole descends. This varies my running, changes the muscles used, increases my activity.
With each footfall, I think of a year of my life. A year. Each time I pad the sand beneath me; grains millions of years in creation, millions in erosion. Each step, a year. I run out of years quickly, in a matter of half a minute. I think of my potential lifespan and run them out in another half minute.
I think then of the people I love and run them out, each step a year of life. My family, less than a minute each, like the blink in time they are, we are. My friends, a minute. I think of those I know, enjoy the company of, gone in minutes, and I do this consecutively but I know it is all concurrent, all gone, more or less, in the steps it takes me to run out mine. I think of those I don’t like. All gone too. No different. All the same. We are a set of footprints. We wash away.
I wish all people happiness and the root of happiness. I wish all people freedom from suffering and the root of suffering. Even those I don’t like. Especially. Now, before I become invisible among the sands. Now, before I wash away.
I have run out of people. I have not run out of beach. I continue, watching the sandpipers skitter the foamline as I splash and make impressions which are instantly gone behind me as the tide washes out. I run and am not tired. How much further?
I expected to run for a few minutes. I thought, how long can I run before I need to turn back? How far can I go before I know I am half-spent and turn around to run back or all spent and must walk my way back? But neither point comes. I run.
I run easily, no pain, barely sweating, my heart slow, my breathing calm. It was not long ago I would run five minutes and be exhausted. I would run and walk and run and walk in alternate minutes. Now I am easy and feel free and comfortable, open. How long have I been running?
I choose a point in the distance, a home among the many but different in color than most, and decide to run to that, then turn around. On the return I can sense no reason to be heading back but my desire to return to my writing. Still, I am not tired, not worn, my breathing slow and full.
I see the salmon-hued building that signals where I started. There is the boardwalk, invisible behind the sea oats and dunes. I run up to the ramp and there I stop.
Once to my car, I look at the meter. I have been gone more than an hour and a quarter and it flashes at me. I have run for much of that time. I have run for nearly an hour. It is not a marathon, but it is an amazement, an accomplishment, and I have a sudden keen sense I have not eaten anything today but half a cup of milk. I am not fasting. I cannot fast. It is bad for my health and is, therefore, forbidden by Talmudic law. Certain people and people under certain conditions, according to the Talmud, may not fast. I have brought nothing by way of food with me and across the empty street is a Coldstone.
I get my things from the car, brush off my feet, put my sandals on, put another quarter into the meter and walk over. What could make this day more perfect than adding an ice cream?
There is a Starbucks, on one side of it and, on the other, a Bizarro’s Pizza. There used to be café here Lee and I ate at once; had lunch with Jeannie, Joseph, and Connor on our first visit to Melbourne. It left with Frances, or Wilma, or one of the September storms to visit in 2004. The building is still empty, partial.
I walk into Coldstone. It is slightly after twelve and it feels as though there have been few customers today. I ask the young lady behind the counter for plain ice cream with no fat and no sugar. They have ice cream with no flavoring; simply the taste of milk, crystalized, thick and solid. No sweetener. Why would milk need sugar? She is happy to oblige and what size? One cup. A small.
Would you like anything in that? No. Wait, yes.
Please, if you would, some almonds.