I entered the year 5776 sitting on cushions around a meditation circle of five in the living room of Eva and Juan’s apartment in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City. As Juan practiced sounding the shofar that Eva had brought back from her last trip to Israel, we cut apples in to thin circle-shaped pieces, placed two bottles of wine and a jar of honey on the floor in the middle of our circle. On the wall were posters of Buddha and various yantras. A corner table displayed traditional objects of prayer and meditation from Buddhist to Pagan to Jewish traditions. Juan grabbed two incense sticks and a pair of candles, which he lit on silver Shabbat candleholders decorated with a Star of David.
He explained the idea behind the celebration, in particular to the two other women in our circle, who learned about the Jewish New Year for the first time. He spoke of the ten days of repentance and purification that begin with the New Moon and culminate in the last hour of the 25-hour Yom Kipur fast, when, according to Kabbalah, the Creator provides those who are willing some extra help to achieve oneness with the universe. Well versed in both Eastern and Judeo-Christian traditions and meditation practices of striving for unity, the two women nodded as if to recognize the familiarity of the information. Before we began a Kabbalistic meditation that is meant to aid in the purification process, Juan asked Eva and I—the two Jews in the room—to contribute any insider wisdom from the thousands year-old tradition he had recently began to learn about.
I shook my head and said I had nothing to add. Two weeks ago, I wasn’t even aware when Rosh HaShana would fall this year nor in which city I would or would not acknowledge the holiday. I was with my Mexican-American housemate Felicia on a tour-boat, floating on the Grijalva River that flows through the Sumidero Canyon when the Israeli woman sitting behind me told me that the holiday was fast approaching.
“There’s a Chabad house in San Cristobal,” she said.
I cut her off as she offered to give me more information and said I had no intention of attending. Later that night, I explained to Felicia and Ksenia, my other housemate in San Cristobal de las Casas about the Jewish New Year over dinner.
“That sounds like an amazing tradition… a time to ask forgiveness, to start fresh. We should do it!” Felicia said, with shining eyes. While Felicia grew up in a traditional Catholic, Mexican home she gradually grew distant from the Church but never lost her connection to the aspects of religion that unite rather than divide. She was excited not only to learn about this tradition but also to take part in it.
At that moment, Ksenia informed us that a partial solar eclipse would be accompanying the New Moon (and Rosh HaShana, which always falls in the New Moon since the Jewish calendar is lunar), ushering a period of inner transformation. Since I am neither a follower of religious nor cosmic “mumbo jumbo” I was apprehensive with the turn of direction in the conversation from an intellectual, historical discussion to a spiritual one. Reluctantly, I agreed to take the spirit of Rosh HaShana to heart and we pledged to take the period starting with the New Moon until Yom Kipur to evaluate our mistakes, ask for forgiveness, and start anew. While Felicia was slightly afraid of the prospect of 25-hours without water, her commitment to practice a religious ritual not her own was inspiring. Secretly though, I was still undecided.
Growing up in a secular family, religious holidays never occupied an important space in my life but rather have been just another excuse to get together with family and overeat. Even spending eight years in the Holy Land did not effect a change or even prompted me to locate the closest synagogue to my house. Despite our nonreligious upbringing, however, every year my grandfather calls me right after Yom Kipur ends to ask whether I fasted.
“Yom Kipur is the most important day,” he usually says to reiterate the necessity to be a good Jew on this particular holiday, his voice conveying the painful disappointment of his granddaughter’s dismissal of the seriousness of day.
I couldn’t understand why he placed such significance on this single day when he never took the initiative to teach much less impose his faith on his offspring. It puzzled me. At first I gave him an honest answer, maybe with an excuse about being sick. After a few years, I began to lie to my grandfather in order to avoid disappointing him and hearing his vague lecture once again. Yom Kipur, the holiest of the Jewish days, turned every year into a day of perjury rather than one of atonement.
One reason for my vehement refusal to simply please my grandfather and do the darn fast like all the other Jews who spend the day binging on TV shows was due to the hypocrisy in which I viewed religion to function in most people’s lives. Felicia and Ksenia lamented the “good” Christians that sinned with bliss during the week to be absolved of all vice on Sunday with a 10-min confession. I told them that my facebook newsfeed would soon be cluttered with status messages along the lines of: “If I have wronged anyone this year, I apologize.” As if that counts!
Fast-forward a week, I have kept my promise to Felicia and begun the process of self-evaluation and atonement. After participating in Juan and Eva’s meditation session in celebration of the New Year, I came to my apartment, lit two candles, and thought about people from whom I must ask forgiveness. I am looking forward to telling the truth to my grandfather when he calls me on Yom Kipur.
Just like one does not have to be monk to meditate, one does not have to be Jew to fast on Yom Kipur.
I am thankful to have spent this Rosh HaShana and the days that preceded the New Moon, far from the Holy Land but with very holy, open-minded individuals who have shown me just that.
Happy New Year to all!
שנט טובה ומתוקה