Why do I drag myself out of bed in the fall to go to high holiday services? It’s a question I ask myself every year, usually right when the alarm goes off and the prospect of sleep sounds infinitely more rewarding than shul. It’s a question that’s grown louder since I’ve come to college, and going to services is truly a choice and not an obligation — now only Jewish guilt, and not Jewish parents, tries to propel me out the door. But it’s also a question which I manage to answer every year, even if some years that answers is just a nebulous “Oh, I really should.”
I think this year I finally realized why I’ve been doing it all four years I’ve been at Stanford. I’ve always thought it was more out of a vague sense of tradition and culture than any sort of religious experience. After all, I’m hardly what anyone would call religious. The high holidays are almost the only time during the year that I go to services now, and I read only enough Hebrew to be able to follow along blindly, to recognize quotidian words from Hebrew school — anachnu, rosh, mayim, shalom, Moshe. Prayer in Hebrew masks any sort of religious meaning with a language I don’t speak, and when the readings shift to English I always find myself squirming uncomfortably in my seat.
But this year I sat, wearing the suit my parents gave me, wrapped in the tallit my grandparents gifted to me, swathed in the name my great-grandfather handed down to me, and I realized that I didn’t go to services out of a sense of guilt or to pay lip service to some aspect of my culture. I didn’t even really go to atone, which is the point of Yom Kippur — to mentally compile a list of all the wrongs you’ve committed over the year and seek out the people you harmed to apologize. I can’t remember back far enough to attempt to propitiate myself to everyone I may have hurt in the course of a year, and in the cases I can remember, I hope I’m a decent enough human being to not wait twelve months. I’ve never truly laid my proverbial sins on the head of the proverbial goat and sent it into the proverbial wilderness.
I went to services — I go to services — because this is what my parents did, what my grandparents did, what my great-grandparents and their parents and their parents’ parents did. They stood and chanted the same songs I stood and chanted, in synagogues that stretch from west to east as the years and generations rewind: California, Cleveland, New York, Poland, Hungary, Russia. The same words. The same culture. The same experience. And though I can’t share any experience with my ancestors — or even, now, with my grandparents — I can go to shul, sit awkwardly in my chair, and tie knots at the ends of my tzitzit, knowing my grandfathers did the exact same thing.