At some point during the afternoon service on Yom Kippur, my brother-in-law, Lee, who is responsible for choosing the individuals for the many High Holy Day ark-openings in his synagogue, instructed one of the worshipers to accompany him for his turn. But as the man rose, they realized that the tzitzit from Lee’s tallit had gotten stuck in the button of the left sleeve of the honoree’s shirt. Unable to separate themselves in time, they tried — and failed — to act casual as Lee, 30, and the man, in his 70s, shuffled to the front and struggled, arm in arm, to open the ark. It was at this point that, in the midst of the most serious and somber day of the Jewish year, the congregants broke out in uncontrollable laughter.
And really, what’s wrong with that? Here we are, inching forward in a joyless slog toward Election Day, a previously unthinkable racially and sexually charged campaign during which I’ve read multiple words on the front page of The New York Times that I wouldn’t repeat to my parents. One of the candidates has recently called into doubt the fairness of the electoral process, a desperate move by a small man that threatens the legitimacy of our 240-year-old democracy. Our governor has become a party to this mess as well, his already damaged reputation further diminished after he was mocked in an Internet meme in which his expression was, according to many, similar to that of a captive in a hostage video. Meanwhile, who’s running things in Trenton?
Lucky for us, we’ve come through to the lighter side of the holiday season, a time when, instead of focusing mainly on improving ourselves and the quality of our lives, we’re actually able to enjoy them a little bit. What’s more, the hagim represent the perfect opportunity to laugh, not just with friends and families, but at ourselves. Because, let’s face it, to the outside world — and sometimes the inside one — our holiday rituals can appear, well, a little ridiculous. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t respect and honor our long-held customs, but a little levity never hurt anyone, and no one is better at laughing at themselves than Jews.
I recently engaged in one of my favorites, the annual Yom Kippur walk, when countless Jews walk to synagogue dressed to the nines from head to — ankle, their footwear limited to the non-leather variety, often Keds or flip-flops or some other unsophisticated choices you won’t find in GQ. God knows what the passersby think of my pairing a pinstriped, navy-blue Armani suit with old-school white-toed Chuck Taylors.
Along those lines, it must have seemed curious earlier this week to see several of us walking around holding a palm branch and a lemon. Ah, yes, the Feast of Tabernacles, the holiday that, perhaps, provides the most fodder for making us look like we’re nuts. Besides our handy lulav and etrog — if you’ve ever had to explain the religious significance to an unwitting TSA official after putting the four species through an x-ray machine at the airport, you know how awkward this can be — we break bread in flimsy huts that provide little to no protection from the elements, and add the less-than-desirable ingredient of pine needles to many of our favorite dishes. A sukka in a private environment like your backyard is one thing; it’s a whole different matter when it’s right outside a kosher pizza shop in Times Square.
But those are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the strangest Sukkot tradition, at least from a visual standpoint. What would you think if you walked into a room full of people circling around the edges of the sanctuary seven times while holding the aforementioned lulav and etrog, and then watched as they bent down and repeatedly beat a stack of willow leaves against the floor, as some Jews are accustomed to doing on Hoshana Rabba, AKA the last day of Sukkot? You wouldn’t think we were practicing a religious ritual; you’d be certain we came from a whole different planet.
Fortunately, that prayer service is conducted inside, far from prying eyes, but what about those that aren’t? In some communities on Rosh Hashana, large groups of people surround a local body of water for Tashlich, their noses in prayer books as they toss small pieces of bread to appreciative, and sometimes combative, ducks and geese. Speaking of Rosh Hashana, I wonder if there are gentiles who catch a glimpse of worshipers carrying a shofar and assume trophy hunting is a significant part of Jewish lore. And if we go back to the ram caught in the thickets that Abraham sacrificed in place of his son during the Binding of Isaac, who’s to say that they’re wrong?
But even the holidays that Jews can usually pull off without arousing unwanted attention can lead to uncomfortable encounters more difficult to explain away than a wacky misunderstanding right out of Three’s Company. A friend once told me that shortly after starting a job, she was in the office during one of the intermediate days of Passover and inadvertently knocked over a cup of soup a new coworker had been slurping at his desk. Though she apologized profusely, she was at a loss to explain why, not wanting to even temporarily own hametz, she couldn’t order another serving for him. The man claimed to understand, but she was pretty sure he was just being polite. On an unrelated (I think?) note, her tenure at that company was short.
Yes, we celebrate our holiday traditions for many reasons — for supplication, repentance, and gratitude, as well as a nod to the hundreds, if not thousands, of generations of Jews who have done so before us — and that’s an incredible factor in who and what we are, and it’s not to be mocked. That being said, refusing to take ourselves too seriously and acknowledging that many of the rituals we hold dear can seem, at least to the untrained eye, bizarre makes it a little easier to get through the extended slate of holidays that take up so much room on our calendars each fall. And maybe integrating humor into our practices will make it more likely that we, and our children, will observe these days next year.
Fear not, that’s consistent with our beliefs. After all, next week hundreds of Jews around the world will spill out of their synagogues and temples, kissing and dancing with scrolls written on the hide of an animal, singing at the top of their lungs, “Vesamahta behageha vehayita ach same’ach,” “You shall rejoice in your festival…and you will be only happy.”