My earliest memory of Yom Kippur is one of my dad writing a note for me to give to my second grade teacher: “Please excuse Penelope from school tomorrow. She is Jewish.”
Maybe if there had been other Jews at my school, the note would have had more context. But my dad was apoplectic about the fact that Christmas was an official school holiday and Yom Kippur was not, and he would explain nothing. So I tried, as best as a seven-year-old-could, to explain to the teacher that Yom Kippur is the most important Jewish holiday. I said: “It’s so important that we don’t even eat.”
Now that I’m in charge of my own fridge, I haven’t fasted in years. But I still take the day off to go to synagogue, and I still find myself explaining the holiday to the uninformed: “It’s a time to mourn the dead. It’s a time to be thankful for being alive and to try to figure out how to be a better person next year.” Even if Jews neglect Judaism in their day-to-day lives, most show up to synagogue for Yom Kippur. Some Christians may relate — they may not say the rosary every night, but they never miss Christmas mass.
As a kid, I considered Yom Kippur an interruption of my secular life. When other kids asked about my absence, I told them I was at home sick or had a very long dentist’s appointment so no one would know I was different. As an adult, there are always more Jews in my office than there were in my grade school, but at the office I have found new problems with Yom Kippur.
The first year that I didn't live with my parents I felt rebellious: I worked on Yom Kippur. But that day it felt bad. I told myself that it would be okay if I spent time at work thinking about how to be a better person the next year, but I ended up thinking only a few minutes, locked in a stall in the back of the bathroom.
By the time my career progressed to management jobs, I knew I would feel bad if I didn’t go to synagogue, but sometimes I still skipped Yom Kippur. I worried: What if a meeting was held and since I wasn't there someone delegated all the grunt work to me? I needn’t have worried — all meetings were postponed out of respect to the number of Jews who were out of the office, except for me, who showed up.
I didn't learn my lesson. I worked on Yom Kippur the year I was supposed to give my first presentation to senior management. The printer broke. The presentation was postponed. No one cared. I fasted the rest of the day at my desk.
Another year, my reason for ditching synagogue was less career-driven and more water-cooler-driven. The O.J. verdict was going to be announced, and I didn’t want to miss the communal fun of hearing the verdict at work. I imagined highly-charged debate, or at least a lot of shouting. So I stayed at work, where reaction to the O.J. verdict hoopla was anticlimactic and short-lived.
After that, I usually took a day off with all the other Jews. I came to enjoy the Yom Kippur chatter in the office among Jews because during the rest of the year, Jews are mostly secular and so is the chatter. Yom Kippur would be more convenient if it fell on Christmas (everything’s closed, Jews have nothing to do — a great day to fast!) but I realized that the Yom Kippur interruption of work would not derail my career, it would only derail my weekly schedule.
This last Yom Kippur, which fell on Sep. 27, two and a half weeks after the terrorist attacks, I discovered something new: Yom Kippur gives me a peaceful time that I would not otherwise allow myself at the expense of work. People are still shaking from the World Trade Center attacks and the looming threat of our country at war. We are all expected to get back to work and be productive — while a necessary process, it is one that feels abrupt. Yom Kippur gave me a break. So I did in that time what that time is set aside to do. I mourned those who died. I gave thanks that I was alive. I thought of how to be a better person next year.
Some will call me on the fact that I only lean on my faith when I need it most. But this tragedy has made many of us revisit, reassess, and most of all, re-appreciate. For years I looked at Yom Kippur as an inconvenience — I always felt I would be missing something at work. This year, the timing could not have been better, and I realize I would have missed out on something more had I gone to the office.