Essay: Kol Nidre at the Wetlands Commission

I sit on a gray, drizzly morning looking out from a porch at a small lake in Connecticut. The branches of the trees overhead are so thick that their c

By HILLEL HALKIN
October 11, 2005 21:25

 
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I sit on a gray, drizzly morning looking out from a porch at a small lake in Connecticut. The branches of the trees overhead are so thick that their canopy makes a natural umbrella that keeps me from feeling the drops. Although it is well into October, the leaves have just begun to turn. The summer, like the ducks paddling on the lake, is still around, even though the acorns drop with a steady plop, causing the squirrels to race for them on the lawn sloping down to the water. My wife's younger sister and her husband live here, and we've come to spend the week of Rosh Hashana with them. My mother-in-law has come up from New York to join us, as has my wife's middle sister and her son. Only the latter three went to synagogue on Rosh Hashana, to a Chabad shul in the next town that generously welcomes all Jews on the High Holy Days with no tickets required. The rest of us begged off. My wife and I don't as a rule attend prayers in Israel, either; her younger sister had a cold and wasn't feeling well; and my brother-in-law hasn't returned to the Chabad shul since its rabbi discovered several years ago that he was a kohen and made him bless the congregation from beneath a prayer shawl, palms spread and fingers splayed. He found this embarrassing. My brother-in-law is too polite to say so, but I suspect he finds Jewish ritual embarrassing in general. He himself is something of a Buddhist, though not in any institutional way. He is into meditation and mindfulness, as well as environmentalism, and he likes to talk about “eco-spirituality.” He works for a water management organization and is at the moment involved in a campaign to eliminate pesticides from lawn use in the state of Connecticut. His days are full of meetings meditation retreats, environmental groups, leadership workshops. One of these meetings was the cause of the only argument to break out during the week we have been here. On the whole, my wife's family does not like arguments. It fears them and the aggression they are perceived to express and it does all it can to avoid them. BUT WHEN my brother-in-law casually announced, as we were sitting around the living room a few nights after Rosh Hashana, that he was planning to go to a meeting of the state Wetlands Commission, of which he is the only Jewish member, on the evening of Yom Kippur, his wife was upset. She could understand his not wanting to go to synagogue, but surely he should have enough Jewish feeling to refrain from attending a public event. In fact, he should get it postponed. The local school board had for years now canceled all classes on the High Holy Days despite the town's small Jewish population. Why couldn't the Wetlands Commission do the same? My brother-in-law, a mild-tempered fellow, explained that the hearing of the Wetlands Commission could not be postponed. It had already been announced and docketed, and it was too late to call it off. “Then don't go,” said my sister-in-law. My brother-in-law tried to explain again. The time to have protested was weeks ago, when the commission first scheduled the hearing. But at the time he hadn't thought it mattered, and it would be awkward to announce now that he had changed his mind. “Just say you can't come,” said my sister-in-law. “What do you think?” my mother-in-law asked me. My mother-in-law has long been puzzled by me. When my wife and I left for Israel 35 years ago, she took that to mean that we felt more Jewish than anyone else she knew. But how can you feel more Jewish than anyone else and not go to synagogue on Rosh Hashana? She doesn't get it to this day. “I think,” I said, “that I'm happy to be living in Israel, where I don't have such problems.” “You're not answering the question,” said my mother-in-law. “Well,” I said, “as a Jew it doesn't really matter to me in the least whether J. [that's my brother-in-law's name] “goes to the meeting on Yom Kippur or not. He doesn't have to be the Hank Greenberg of environmentalism for my sake. And anyway, Hank Greenberg never asked the American League to cancel all its games on Yom Kippur ” “But it would be a gesture of respect on the Wetlands Commission's part,” said my mother-in-law. “Like the school board's.” “Maybe so,” I said. “But it's a gesture that a Jew who feels at home in his Jewishness doesn't need. When I went to high school in New York, which is a very Jewish city, school was open on Yom Kippur and kids like me couldn't have cared less. We just stayed home and didn't make a fuss about it.” “But that's the whole point,” said my sister-in-law. “This isn't New York. It's a goyishe town. I feel in exile here.” “If you really felt in exile,” I told her, “you wouldn't think the Wetlands Commission was excluding you. You would accept the fact that you're not living in a Jewish world.” MY SISTER-IN-LAW said nothing. Neither did my mother-in-law. I could tell what she was thinking, though. She was thinking: And you who don't go to synagogue on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in Israel, you live in a Jewish world? Go explain the logic of Zionism to your 93-year-old mother-in-law. Tell her why you think your brother-in-law is acting more consistently than all the good American Jews who want Judaism without exile. The rain is coming down harder now, chasing the ducks from the lake. When we first moved to Israel, there were many things from America that I missed. Gradually, over the years, the list grew shorter and shorter until there was only one thing left: Summer rain. Wetness and warmness at once. The soft sound of drops falling on green leaves overhead. I still miss it. But it seems like a paradox now, a contradiction in terms. Summer is summer and rain is rain: It's clear that you can't have both at once. But that of course is an Israeli perspective. In Connecticut, it's hard to see why you can't.

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