Don’t put the girls and the drinks at the back of the room: why Yom Kippur needs saving

Note: this post was originally entitled ‘In defence of Yom Kippur’, but I started explaining why YK needs saving in the first place and that became an entire post. So please read this first and I promise that the defence is coming.

As I walked into my relatives’ home yesterday to break my fast, it was quite obvious to me that the whole function had been planned and organised by people who had not themselves been fasting.

How could I tell? Simple: after 25 hours of not eating or drinking, the one thing that you need more than anything else is some liquid. The human body can actually survive relatively well for weeks without food, but a couple of days with no water and *goodbye*. Knowing this, anyone who had been fasting would have drinks — and a lot of them — made very available for everyone leaving synagogue and coming to the social part of the evening.

As I walked through the door, however, I was greeted not with drinks, but with a whole range of food. This is not to say that I have a problem with the honey cake, chopped liver and other Ashkenazi fast-breaking treats — it’s just that it’s extremely difficult to swallow a mouthful of honey cake without choking when your throat feels like it has been covered in a layer of fly-paper.

I said the obligatory hello to the several relatives who caught my eye as soon as I walked in, but during this time my eyes were constantly searching for the elusive drinks table. I asked one of my interlocutors where I could find myself a drink around there, and he promptly pointed down the hallway, through a crowd of 50 assorted relatives and family friends, to the garden at the back of the house.

My face dropped in dismay. There was no conceivable way that I would be able to get to the drinks table without being stopped by at least one parent, two grandparents, one auntie and two or three cousins — each of whom would take up approximately 5 minutes of conversation before I could make a polite exit. Nevertheless, I have been fortunate enough to have had some rather intense commando-style training in moving through crowds with my head down, and this was definitely the occasion to use it.

A few minutes later, having managed to avoid eye contact with the vast majority of my kin, I arrived panting at the drinks table, only to discover that my cousins had hired a bartender for the evening to cater to the 70-odd guests and that — being a professional — he had a few bottles of mostly alcoholic drinks on the table and all of the glasses behind him. To my even further dismay, he was using those tiny glasses that people seem to think makes a function more classy, but I’m pretty sure are only used by restaurants to force customers to keep ordering more overpriced drinks as there is no way 200ml of anything can remotely quench anyone’s thirst.

At that point I probably would have started shooting my own family if it meant there was a drink at the end of it, yet I still had to wait for another 3 minutes while the bartender casually served other people as though he had all the goddamn time in the world and there wasn’t some guy standing there about to collapse from dehydration. When I finally managed to grab him by the arms his attention, I ordered three glasses of sparkling water (there was no still) which, after what seemed like an eternity of pouring, I was finally able to gulp down.

Now I am not telling this story not just to vent — I’m getting to the point, I promise you.

Putting the drinks at the back and guarded by the bartender would seem like a perfectly natural thing to do when putting on a function of that size which was not a breaking-of-the-fast. For those of us who did fast, however, it was torture. This is relevant because it suggests — as was the case — that most of my family did not fast. In fact, most of my family were not even at any shul services.

I have done calculations before that put shul attendance on Yom Kippur in Sydney at about 50% of Sydney’s Jews, excluding those who cannot make it because they are too young, too elderly or too unhealthy. There are many reasons why the other half of our community do not attend and if you had the next week or two to keep reading this I could perhaps list most of them, but as it is I may have to settle for one or two.

One thing that I can say for sure is this: the men in my family may put in an appearance at shul, but the women don’t go. Similarly, the women do not fast. That is true across the board — my sister, my mother, my grandmother, my aunties, my female cousins — they all arrived at dinner much earlier than those of us who were rushing home from the ne’ila service for the reason of having been not at the service and not fasting. (Some will tell you that they fasted until the afternoon, but to me that is called ‘skipping breakfast’ and happens once a week, not once a year. Also, in fairness, my mother did go to shul — but I will explain that below.)

This, while perhaps unfortunate, is unsurprising. As you may have gathered, my family is not particularly observant of our religion. Despite this, almost without fail, they have seats at Central Synagogue. That is the major Orthodox synagogue in Sydney, which charges an obscene amount of money for seats that people renew each year but never sit on.

In a religion and a culture that is theoretically so focused on questions and discussion, you would think that at some point people would ask questions like “why do I pay $3,000 every year to attach a little chrome plate with my name inscribed onto a chair in a synagogue that I never intend to ever sit on?” But ours is a community that is never taught to ask these things — all we really “know” is that it would be “wrong” not to fork-out the cash.

I think I may have touched on this before, but I follow Mazorti and not Orthodox Judaism primarily because we do not believe in forcing the women to the back of the room and hiding them away, lest we be distracted from the important things — like peering over the shoulder of the guy in front to see where we are up to in the service, counting the amount of pages left, then crying a little when we realise that we have only gone through five pages in the last half hour because the chazzan loves his annual moment in the spotlight and feels the need to drag each syllable out as far as it can possibly be stretched and then repeat the whole line.

You know, because you can’t do that if you’re standing next to your mother. She might distract you, by being female and therefore quite possibly having cooties. Or something.

I, for one, can attest to the falsity of these entrenched tenets of Orthodoxy. I spent part of Tuesday night standing next to my mother in shul and still managed to not follow the service like a pro — I must have lost my place at least a dozen times.

Point is, if I were a woman and a member of an Orthodox shul (neither of which I am) I wouldn’t go either. I have been to Central on Yom Kippur and peered into that upstairs balcony from whence the womenfolk look down upon the service happening below and I know that what goes on there is not so much prayer as it is… let’s go with “discussion of secular topics”, to be polite. I have no idea why anyone would even need to go to shul to sit and chat when the same thing could be done anywhere else, so why bother?

Another consequence of the gender segregation in shul is that it breaks up families. One relative observed to me that he has a wife and three children and cannot be with them the whole day if they go to shul, so they don’t — and his wife has a very prominent educational role in our community.

Meanwhile, I have also been in the men’s section at the back of Central and found a lesser version of the experience of the women’s section. At least you are not totally excluded from the service and do get the occasional opportunity to reach out and touch the Torah scroll with your tallit as some dude walks by carrying it, but there is still a lot of gossiping and not much davening at all.

One thing it is most certainly not is any kind of spiritual experience — and yet the rabbis wonder why nobody shows up on any other day of the year.

Well, I think it’s a shame. I will stop here because this post is too long already, but bear with me and I will soon explain why I think YK is important and the kinds of things we could be doing instead.

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  1. #1 by Michelle Stein-Evers Frankl on September 28, 2012 - 6:55 pm

    Exactly why I, as a thinking and feeling woman who loves all the Tradittions (I hit the jackpot of all 3: Ashkenazi, sefardi and real mizrachi) and also is educating a daughter, that I joined the conservative/ masorti denomination. But I still also have to organise and serve the Break Fast and all other holiday meals so often skip services.

  1. In defence of Yom Kippur « Major Karnage

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