My 10-year wedding anniversary happens to fall on the most sacred Jewish holiday–Yom Kippur, a.k.a the Day of Atonement.
It’s a day when even non-observant Jews feel enough fear and guilt (passed along through thousands of years of D.N.A and bed-time stories) to polish their dress shoes and head to shul.
When I broke the news of the calendar coincidence to my husband Dan, he was giving our 4-year-old daughter a bath.
“Our anniversary is on Yom Kippur this year,” I told him. The bizarreness of the situation made me almost gleeful in the telling.
“Can’t we celebrate another day?” he asked.
“But our anniversary isn’t on another day. It’s September 14,” I said.
I waited until we were getting ready to go to sleep to make my argument.
Point 1: Our anniversary is on a Saturday and you won’t have to take off work.
Point 2: Grandma is free after morning services and can babysit, so we can get a hotel room in the city and be free to engage in marital debauchery.
Point 3: We always said we would go back to Tahiti for our 10-year anniversary, and obviously that’s not happening, so I deserve this.
“It doesn’t matter. I’m not going out that day,” said Dan. “I’m too superstitious.”
Yom Kippur is a day when you are supposed to ask for forgiveness from God for a variety of sins ranging from immorality to hard-heartedness. The long list of transgressions, which runs the length of the alphabet, is repeated over and over by the congregation 10 times. You ask for forgiveness and to be “written well in the book of life.” As a collective, your sins are wiped clean. Jews all over the world fast and pray and count the hours until they can nosh on chicken and kugel and turn on the TV.
Probably the most famous Yom Kippur story of big plans deferred is when Sandy Koufax refused to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series. Koufax wasn’t particularly observant, but even the infamous southpaw didn’t want to test the hand of God
Since Koufax’s infamous opt-out, the Day of Atonement has become an opportunity for American Jews to take pride in our identity. When I was a kid growing up in Silicon Valley, clueless teachers invariably scheduled mandatory tests on that day. My mom would march me into the principal’s office and negotiate a make-up exam after listening to a lecture about the importance of consistent attendance. My parents quietly sat through “secular” Christmas pageants and endured the annual Easter projects. But when it came to Yom Kippur, they always spoke up about our right to observe.
My parents learned early in their relationship not to test fate where Yom Kippur was concerned. When they were dating, my mom dragged my religious father to Mondo Cane on Yom Kippur. The Italian documentary set out to shock western audiences with scenes involving canine brutality and bull decapitation.
“It was a test,” Mom said. “I wanted him to prove how much he loved me.”
Every spate of bad luck my parents weathered, from job losses to car breakdowns, was blamed on that one transgression. To skip shul on Yom Kippur is to invite bad juju into your life, and to worry that you’ve caused your own bad luck.
Despite eschewing many of the Jewish holidays, Dan’s family always went to Yom Kippur services. His father, Victor, skipped the obligations once in 1951 while on a business trip, and within two weeks was called up into Active Duty during the Korean War.
Victor, 87, hasn’t missed a Yom Kippur since.
“No matter where the hell I am–Sweden, Pennsylvania ,Turkey, you name it–I go to a synagogue just to put in an appearance,” he said.
Dan and I are not particularly religious, although we were married under a chuppah by a rabbi.
I attended Hebrew School for two hours a day, three times a year for seven years. I stopped going to services shortly after my Bat Mitzvah.
Dan was raised Reform in a more relaxed Southern California atmosphere. Even though his entire family is Jewish, he hung Christmas stockings on his mantle. For a short period of time, my Jewish husband actually believed in Santa Claus.
Now Dan joins the masses each year on his annual pilgrimage to shul. He goes with my Mom and sits beside her in a church next door to my old synagogue. The church is the “overflow” space–set aside specifically to accommodate non-members who need a place to go on the High Holy Days.
This year, as our 10-year anniversary looms, Dan has decided to become the Sandy Koufax of husbands. His reasoning is simple. To quote from R. Crumb, many Jews view God as “an old, cranky Jewish patriarch.”
“I am not about to test God or trifle with him any more than I would trifle with our marriage, “ said Dan. “Let’s face it. Jewish men fear two things in this world: God, and their wives, and not necessarily in that order.”
So, instead of popping the champagne and splurging on a $100 Italian dinner, Dan will fast, and listen to a sermon he probably won’t agree with, and repeat Hebrew verses he won’t comprehend. I will stay at home with my daughter and we’ll eat and talk about the holiday that Daddy and Grandma are celebrating. Some people might look at the choice to spend the day separately as a divider in our marriage, but I choose to see it differently.
I know my husband well enough by now to understand he will take a great deal of comfort in the yearly ritual. He will remember his brother, David, during the memorial portion of the service. He will end the day feeling cleansed, more at peace than he usually is. Even though we come from the same religious background, it’s not an experience I share with him. I believe that blessings and bad luck arrive in life regardless of religious observance. I don’t feel renewed by the yearly ritual of Yom Kippur. I feel drained and always a little let down–reminded of my own small attempts to control a situation well-beyond my grasp.
But trying to convince Dan to make a different choice for the day will only bring both of us a great deal of pain.
When friends ask how we’ll be marking our anniversary, I tell them that on the actual date of our anniversary our celebration will be somber, and will look a little more like the “too real” parts of our marriage. It’s a reminder about the compromises and sacrifices that are a daily part of any long-lasting relationship.
Like Yom Kippur, a wedding anniversary is a time to take a step back from your daily life–to weigh the good and bad, to contemplate your triumphs and missteps, to make a vow to do better individually and as a couple.
Dan and I have been lucky in that respect. So far, neither one of us has transgressed beyond the other’s ability to forgive. We’ve had our share of heated arguments, failed promises, and disappointments. In New York I once threw a moist brownie at him for coming home later than expected. Dan once promised me a new Prius and a house if I moved across the country with him. So far, neither has materialized.
That’s when the hard part of forgiveness begins: the letting go of the small, petty accumulations in a marriage. Maybe that’s why Jews believe in asking for forgiveness once a year–to make it so that we don’t have a lifetime of grievances that threaten to topple us.
The last prayer of Yom Kippur is called Neilah. It comes at the end of a long day. It’s a final plea for acceptance, and a prayer for a new year filled with goodness and happiness. It’s not unlike the slightly belated toast slightly we’ll be sharing as we celebrate our anniversary the next day.