Almost 95% of Jews do something to observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I want my kids to be part of this when they grow up, so the only way to do that is to model it for them now. Because it’s completely clear to me that people who believe in God are fundamentally more optimistic and more connected to community, and I want my kids to have that.

Also, I try not to work on the holidays because I want to be known, somehow, as a Jew who blogs about being Jewish. And if I’m going to do that, then I want to be known as someone who does not work on the holidays. It’s part of being Jewish, I think, to struggle with what to do on these days. So I want to struggle, too.

Every year it is hard for me to stay away from work, even when every year that I have worked has felt terrible. But even if I could feel okay working on these days, it’s not the person I want to be. Here's who I am right now: the person who just two years ago moved to a state I knew no one in, and then got a divorce. So I’m not exactly the queen of community right now. A holiday like Rosh Hashanah emphasizes this, but makes me more committed to fixing the problem.

This is also the time that I start gearing up for Yom Kippur, which comes in a week. Yom Kippur is about being sorry for not being nice to other people, so I try to fix as much as I can in the next week so I can be less sorry.

I think first of my not-quite ex-husband. And I cry. Maybe you didn’t think that I cry about the divorce. I didn’t ever start crying about it until he became a little nicer, which was once he was sure he was getting a divorce. He really wants a break from me. I’m not sure he totally hates me, but I am sure he totally hates being married to me.

But we have great moments, too. He came to the house for Rosh Hashanah. I usually leave the house to give him space to be with the kids. But he agreed that we could all eat dinner together for the holiday because he knows how important it is to me.

I cooked. Which I’m thinking is a primal instinct thing for someone you love. I mean, cooking is very easy to outsource, (since I outsource almost everything already) but it doesn’t feel right to me. I want to cook for people I’m close to. But it doesn’t feel right to do a primal-instinct-I-love-you-thing for the guy who wants a divorce, so I also bought sushi, which he really likes.

Then my not-quite-ex, who is not-quite-convinced that religion matters, said the prayers with us before dinner. Which almost made me cry.

Then, I said, “Oh. There’s a fly. We need a fly swatter.”

And he said, “You should hire one.”

And we both laughed.

That’s what made me cry.

We had a nice dinner, and then after dinner, I had to leave the house. Because the not-ex and I have a deal that he doesn’t have to have me around when he’s parenting. I think I make him nervous. Or I make him want to kill me. It’s a fine line, really.

So I left. Usually I love leaving. Because I work. I usually have phone meetings booked when I leave the house until midnight. But I didn’t want to work. I thought reading would be more appropriate. But I didn’t want to buy a latte at Starbucks and read there. I can’t be a self-respecting Jew and buy a latte on Rosh Hashanah.

So I sat in the car on a dark street and thought about work. I thought about what work I would most like to be doing instead of sitting in the car in the dark.

And here’s what I thought of: The three blog posts I owe to people who have been really nice to me. I have made three promises to write posts and broken all three of them.

One of the promises is more than a year old, to ERE. It’s a great organization because they are at the cutting edge of online recruiting. Actually one of the best speaking gigs I’ve ever had.

Then there’s the post for Tony Morgan. He’s a Christian blogger who reads this blog—I love that blogging helps me cross cultural lines to people who I wouldn’t normally come into contact with. I want him to know that I love being part of a Christian community when he links to me. (And I love watching how the Christians leverage the blogosphere to make being Christian interesting. Why can’t the Jews do that? Probably because we just blog about High Holiday guilt.)

The last one is that I owe Leo Babauta a blurb. He asked me to write one for the back of his new book that’s been sitting on my desk for a while. It is about to be the next thing that I’ve waited on so long that I have actually been inconsiderate.

So I decide that as soon as Rosh Hashanah ends, I’m going to write these three things. And write this post.

All this to say: you don’t need the Jewish holidays in order to learn something about yourself. Force yourself to isolate for a day. Don’t allow yourself to do all the usual things. You will learn something about yourself. It’s impossible not to.

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  1. Juki Schor
    Juki Schor says:

    @Burton Lo
    You wrote:
    Someone once said to me that they considered religions to be “spiritual grade school” and I’ve since come to believe that many practitioners of religion stop themselves from further schooling.
    I once heard someone spiritual say that “it is good to be born into a religion, but it is not good to die in one.

    There is also an old saying in my mom’s house (I translated it into English, so it probably sounds weird):
    God invented the time, he didn’t say anything about hurry.

  2. Burton Lo
    Burton Lo says:


    Re: not dying in a religion
    That makes me laugh a little, but I know quite a few religious people that truly take the tenets and ideals of their religions and walk a path that I admire and respect greatly.

    Re: God not talking about hurry
    Oh my, how you’ve hit one of my nails on the head. I have struggled most of my life (except for a few blissful days) will trying to live up to my expectations of many (most!) things, particularly with regards to my own timetable. Worst of all, I was my worst offender!

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think intentional non-productivity is necessary for all of us. The length of time set aside, frequency, or the reason for it will vary depending upon the individual and their needs and circumstances at any given time. Penelope gave us a good example here how her religion helped her to learn something about herself. However, as she points out in the last paragraph, you can use intentional non-productivity to be productive by isolating yourself and breaking your routine – however you choose to do it. It allows us to gather our thoughts, reflect back on our lives, gain some perspective, and plan for the future.
    Happy High Holidays (with no guilt) Penelope.

  4. Monica
    Monica says:

    It is such a beautiful post. I love your posts that are more about you and less about work…

    You cry because you are grieving the end of something important (your marriage) And that’s good.

    And it is also good that you are able to see the good in your ex, and smile when you guys have a brilliant moment as a family, as you did over dinner

    I think it’s awesome that y’all can still do the family thing for the kids. That, too, is modeling good behavior.

  5. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    Hi Penelope. Thanks for your blog. I did not know you were a Boston Globe columnist. I lived in Boston for 10 years. I hope your presentation went well today. I also hope that the work I did on your PowerPoint slides is helpful. I left your laptop in locked status. All the best with balancing work and life. I can relate. -Barbara

  6. Michael Deutsch
    Michael Deutsch says:

    I wonder how many people receive your blog and Tony’s? I do. Anyway, what I hear from you is a desire to have community (a third place) for you and your kids. I believe we all long for that type of place which is safe, yet, passion and hope filled.

    Growing up Jewish I never experienced that in all my years attending Temple. Now, as a Christian, and a pastor, at that, I obviously see the benefit of my faith, but what adds to it, is the community. However, many, many churches do not have it, which the non-churched world does not realize. Even as a pastor, I long for community, at home, with my children, with friends, and with others.

    Thank you for sharing your journey.



  7. Pufferfish
    Pufferfish says:

    “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

    – George Bernard Shaw

  8. thatgirlinnewyork
    thatgirlinnewyork says:

    thank you for such a thoughtful post, during a time that is typically inward-focused.

    i can understand why the kindness of your ex-to-be made you cry. i experienced the same thing–that kindness came easily to my ex when he knew he would be “getting what he wanted” (he was set to marry someone else immediately upon our divorce). this kindness triggers all those “why” questions that visit you while dissolving a relationship. if this kindness comes so easily to them, then why not forgiveness, and reconciliation? these are not easily answered, but your statement about being sure he “really hates being married” to you offers a key.

    work to forgive yourself for whatever you feel compels your husband’s action, then work to forgive him, too. this takes time, but yom kippur offers a good opportunity to begin anew in this fashion, penelope.

    try to find comfort in knowing that you offer everyone who reads this access to their own happiness–no small thing. this kindness shall be intrinsically returned to you.

    my best to you during this time of healing and renewal.

  9. Le
    Le says:

    Howdy Ms P

    Just wanting to ID myself as a glass half full girl who has faith in herself by choice over faith in God.

    Maybe you just hang with the wrong crowd if cynicism is over taking day to day joy in living.

    I am pleased that God works for you – as I know he does for millions of others …

    And I know gross generalisations are a way of life – I make them as we all do … yet somehow I just wanted to pipe up for the under -represented minority (maybe in your mind ?) of happy folk who do well with community, connections and life without the Lord as a guiding light.

    Cheers for now Le

  10. Le
    Le says:

    PS – when are you going to replace your ‘corporate bob look’ pic with one from the photo shoota month or so back …

    * * * * * *

    Yeah, I know, I’m sick of that photo too. A blog redesign is in the works…


  11. marguerite at the new having it all
    marguerite at the new having it all says:

    Because my work also exists at the intersection of work and life, I read your posts faithfully. You have articulated the connection between space and introspection with creativity and achievement. Despite the pace of the lives we all lead, we need consciously to allocate time to regenerate. Thanks for the reminder.

  12. Daniel
    Daniel says:

    Because it’s completely clear to me that people who believe in God are fundamentally more optimistic and more connected to community, and I want my kids to have that.

    Did i just read that?

    This is where I stop reading your blog and ask you to go back to your oven.

  13. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    All too often we here of divorced couples becoming best friends after it is all said and done…and I see a lot of our friends with children go down this path as well. Once divorced, the stress of being a couple goes away and it’s just people. You divorced yourself from your job for one day and did away with the stress, and the status quo, and focused on something that was important. Maybe i’m wrong here…but I think this all comes down to refocusing and recharging…even for only one day.

  14. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    After several decades of being bludgeoned by society in general, and those who are God’s self-proclaimed representatives on earth in particular, I have no desire to find the “faith” for your so-called “optimism”. Didn’t Marx call religion “the opiate of the masses”? Whatever else he was wrong about, he might have been right in this.

  15. Dale
    Dale says:


    this was a very well written post! You are a lovable psycho:) Your own best friend, and your own worst enemy… but you already know that don’t you.

    On the subject of God… some think too much, some think too little. Where’s the happy medium? As long as we agree to disagree amicably, who gives a rip.

    Let the religious wallow in our self/God imposed faith, and let the unsure or the unbelieving have his or her logic, etc, but let us consciously avoid each other’s toes as that will make for coexistence.

  16. Pan_theFrog
    Pan_theFrog says:

    “We know that people who are religious are more connected to community (they go to church regularly, for example).”

    So the fact that not one of my family members attends a curch means we are not connected with the community, even though we are norrmally never home due to our being so busy with multiple community projects?

    Then there is Sarah. She spent 3 years in a small cabin by herself, only coming into town once a month so that she could devote herself to reading and interputing the Bible. Two years later she commited suicide.

    Maybe this line; “I love that blogging helps me cross cultural lines to people who I wouldn’t normally come into contact with”; points to part of the problem. You don’t see the non-religious happy community-connected people, as they are not part of your culture.

    Yes, I might be a little cynical… I think it is due to being told all the time that I am not good enough because I don’t follow a religion.

  17. Shawn
    Shawn says:

    I’ve been adjusting to a new job and a long commute. On the way home, I’ve been fighting the temptation to jump on the phone and instead have been spending that time reflecting on the day, the week, or the last 10 minutes. And to be honest, I think that time spent clearing my head has made me more productive than if I’d been on the phone.

  18. Pam
    Pam says:

    I really enjoyed your blog but have to say I really disagree with your comment:

    “it’s completely clear to me that people who believe in God are fundamentally more optimistic and more connected to community”

    I just couldn’t disagree with that more.

  19. Jack
    Jack says:

    Rosh Hashnah and Yom Kippur always make me feel unsettled. But I have come to appreciate the forced introspection.

    On a side note I always find it funny that some people find blog posts to be so offensive that they feel the need to try and insult the writer.

  20. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Taking a day to reflect and get out of our daily habits to be with God or ourselves is hard in our busy world, but one that does help us refocus on what is important in our lives.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this and being open…..Great post!

  21. Rick
    Rick says:

    Penelope, I’m not about to even get within a zip code of the religious/God/Community/Optimist?Realist? aspect of this discussion.


    I have only one small contribution to make. While you challenge all of us, your readers, to force ourselves to isolate for a day, it is your experience which I find most informing. It really isn’t about forcing ourselves, it is about leveraging our opportunities, much as you did as you sat in your car at night.

    Over and over, I have discovered ways to take advantage of exactly the kind of short break from life you describe, and it is sometimes just as bitter-sweet as was this break for you.

    It’s not about forcing ourselves to be or do anything. It’s about being nimble, finding opportunity in seemingly discouraging circumstances. It’s dancing to the hypnotic drip of the faucet if we have no wrench handy.

  22. Christine
    Christine says:

    I’m disappointed by your sweeping statement about people who believe in God being more optimistic and connected to their community than nonbelievers. What could possibly be less cynical than to live a good and kind and productive life *just because you choose to* — NOT because you’re looking for a reward (or trying to avoid punishment) in the afterlife?! There are many passionate, good-humored atheists who strive to make the most of their one short life on this planet. Atheism is not a synonym for nihilism!

  23. Michael Benidt
    Michael Benidt says:

    What an open and honest post! No wonder you have so many readers and comments. This post made me think about the relationship Faye Kellerman describes between her main character, detective Peter Decker, and his wife, Rina Lazarus. They are both Jewish, but he is not as religious (or grounded, or philosophical or whatever). The interchanges between the two about faith are poignant, touching and clearly having an effect on him, slowly, over time. Faye Kellerman’s written many books that include these two characters. I recently read The Burnt House and The Mercedes Coffin, but I bet the religion subject is dealt with in her other books. Yeah, ok, they are popular mysteries – but try them, I think you’ll be surprised.

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