So today was Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar; the day of atonement.
It’s always weird for me, the whole high holiday thing. I’m 99.5 percent certain there’s no God. Actually, lemme rephrase. I’m 99.5 percent certain there’s no all-knowing God who was involved with the burning bush and the ark and Moses parting the sea. I mean, no matter how many Hebrew School classes I attended, and no matter what I said in my Bar Mitzvah speech, and no matter how scary a world without purpose can be … well, I sorta believe we’re a world without purpose. Or, put different, a world where we’re left to define our own purpose.
A world without God.
And yet … there I was today, alongside my two children, sitting in synagogue, listening to the rabbi with hundreds of people who, I’m guessing, come primarily because they’ve always come, and their parents always came, and their grandparents always came, and on and on and on. Truth be told, I know (personally) very few Jews who strongly believe in God. Maybe some hope She is a real thing. But hope and believe are two different words, with two different meanings. And throughout the service, I kept thinking to myself, “Why am I here? Why am I fasting? Why not just give this all up?”
Truly, I don’t have an answer. But I do have a photograph. It’s the one above—Stanley Pearlman, my dad, age 13, in 1955, the day of his Bar Mitzvah. I don’t know much about that afternoon, save that the ceremony took place in Brooklyn, there was a lunch afterward and my pops was never as good at Hebrew as his older brother, my Uncle Marty. Here, however, is what I do know: As long as I can remember, Dad has been involved in our little hometown Chavurah. He was a founding member; he’s been the congregation president; he listens closely to the rabbi’s sermons; he takes the stories as stories. Not always as literal truths, but as lessons; as game-plans.
And, when I was a boy, I’d sit next to Dad during services, and he’d scratch my back and I’d be as happy as a kid could be, my hero sketching invisible letters and numbers onto my shirt.
Somehow, that memory keeps me returning. And, during today’s services, as the rabbi went on about that and this, I scratched numbers and letters onto my son’s little back.
All felt right.