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high holidays

When Everyone in Your Town Ignores Jewish Holidays

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When I moved with my husband and family from Scarsdale, New York to Barrington, Rhode Island four years ago, I knew I’d be making a lot of changes.

I didn’t realize that questioning my entire sense of Jewishness would be one of them.

The first inkling that I wasn’t going to fit in easily anymore came early in September, just as Rosh Hashanah did that year. My fourth-grade daughter came home from school and announced that her classmate was having a birthday party.

“Check your email! Check your email!” she chanted, jumping up and down. In a new town, in a different state, my social butterfly was excited to have this first invitation.

Sure enough, on my laptop was an Evite from the little girl’s mother for a birthday party, an outdoor movie night in their backyard. Only it was scheduled on Erev Rosh Hashanah (the first night of Rosh Hashanah), in direct conflict with services.

I told my daughter that there must be some mistake with the date, and I asked the mom about it that night at swim practice.

She nodded her head as I reminded her about the Jewish New Year. Our children swam 50 million laps of the breaststroke in the pool behind us. “I figured it was actually the perfect time to do the party, since there’s no school the next day,” she explained, shrugging. “We’ll try to get the girls together another time.”

Like on Christmas Eve? I wanted to suggest. Because we are totally free that night! Do you like Chinese food? Instead I just smiled politely and thanked her again for the invitation.

Two weeks later, I woke up on Yom Kippur morning to a loud mechanical noise. It sounded like it was coming from the neighbor’s house behind mine. I followed the noise into my bathroom, which gave me a partial view into the next backyard. Something big and blue was blowing up, up, up.

“Is that a…?” I began.

“Bouncy house? Yeah.” My husband said, standing beside me. Top 40 music began to blast through the hedges. “And a DJ.”

My family went to temple all morning, came home and fasted, and then were serenaded by Rihanna and Tay-Tay on full blast while we repented for our sins and counted the hours until afternoon and Yizkor services.

As I prepared to host 20 people for break fast, I noticed that the DJ was now playing the exact same playlist for a third time. Shawn Mendez again. Apparently, Yom Kippur is another great day to host a birthday party.

I’m not angry about this so much as, well, miffed. Having grown up in Westchester and living in and around New York City my entire life, I was really underprepared for what life as a Jewish person would be like outside of my bubble. I had thought: It’s still the East Coast. It’s where my Jewish husband grew up. It’s a three-hour drive from Scarsdale. How foreign can Rhode Island really be?

Turns out, very.

So what do I do when challenged in this way? Like, when an extra special, mandatory cheerleading practice is called for one of the High Holy Days, as it was last year? Or, for example, when the swim team’s bathing suit fittings are scheduled right in the middle of Kol Nidre (the service at the beginning of Yom Kippur)?

In the absence of other good ideas, I very politely and very firmly remind them that it is a sacred day for my family and that we will not be in attendance at their event.

In Rhode Island, where my daughter was the only Jewish child in her fourth-grade class, I am not just reminded that Jews make up 2 percent of the world’s population, I feel it in my bones. When kids come up to my children in the hallways and personally thank them for getting a day out of school, I remember that most of them had never been in a temple before coming to my son’s bar mitzvah. (And they had the best time ever, I must add.)

In my new life, I cannot be complacent about who I am and what my family believes.

I will not hide it. And maybe that’s a very good thing. Because, in a way I never did before, I feel both the burden and blessing of being the one that must educate others, and I am choosing to fully embrace it.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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