Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur your life can change.
Of course, it should, right? That’s the point of the high holy days, that you evaluate your life and decide what it needs to be like going forward. Of course, I doubt most rabbis would recommend moving countries during the two most holy days of our religious calendar, but what can I say, I’m a maverick.
I spent Rosh Hashanah as I always do at Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia. I spent Yom Kippur praying in a small apartment in Mumbai. I welcomed in the New Year among my community. I atoned alone–between sleeping off horrific jet lag–isolated from community and playing songs from the Kol Nidre service over and over again on my husband’s laptop (mine immediately broke when I arrived in India, like a protest against functioning on foreign soil). This is not the first Yom Kippur I’ve spent alone; in fact, sometimes I wonder if I’m destined to do so.
The first Yom Kippur I spent alone continues to resonate with me with each successive year I am not in Philadelphia. During my first year of college the holiday fell late in the year, and in the middle of the week. The vigorous schedule of my undergraduate curriculum coupled with the distance between Connecticut and Philadelphia (and the crippling train fare) meant I couldn’t make it back, despite my longing to do so. I felt, in those first few weeks at school, completely isolated and unable to make friends. When, in the middle of the services provided by the school, I saw a girl from one of my classes, Alexandra, whose name I remembered because she went by Zan, dressed in the traditional white which I never seem to remember to wear, singing along with the service, I burst into tears. Here was the only person I knew in the room and I felt paralyzed, unable to reach out to her, sure she wouldn’t care.
Since that first time, there have been other solo holidays, some better than others, although none of us can say that Yom Kippur is anyone’s happiest of holidays. I look forward to it, though, as my friend Ben says, it’s like dry cleaning for your soul. This year in Mumbai, receiving no response to my inquiries about services from the limited Jewish life here, the Mumbai Chabad house, I was on my own again, the only Jew I knew in a world of Hindus.
The very first time my Hindu husband experienced any kind of Jewish life was Yom Kippur. He jumped right into the deep end of Judaism, and he emerged, shell-shocked, and a little gun-shy of any other Jewish holidays. Eventually we got him to a Shabbat service and things looked up from there, but I will never forever his first take on Judaism. He told me he understood why I felt so guilty about everything, all the time. He was amazed that there were so many things Jews felt responsible for. I had explained to him about the concept of Tikkun Olam, that the task of humanity on Earth is to heal the world, but nowhere had it been driven home to such an extent as watching a synagogue full of people beat their hearts and ask for forgiveness and pledge to forgive others.
The focus of Judaism is often “What does this mean to me,” as we learn from the Passover service. As it is written, he who does not properly understand the symbols of the holiday and recount the story of the pass-over has not properly celebrated the holiday. It’s that pedantic nature that drives our understanding of our celebrations, from Sukkot to Shabbat. No holiday, I believe, forces us to look so deeply inwards as Yom Kippur. It is an entirely individual holiday, which we, as with all of our holidays, celebrate communally. In this way, it forces us to understand the collective responsibility for our individual sins, and our individual responsibility for our collective misdeeds. It is exhausting. But it’s what we do. The idea of collective worship being a part of individual understanding, the signs and signals and codification of meaning within our ceremonies and festivities, they unite us, and we put value in that unification. Hinduism, as I am learning slowly, works completely differently. No wonder my husband was surprised and overwhelmed. But it is the educational nature of our rituals that allows me personally to find meaning when isolated and individually moored far away from home and from familiar things. Knowing what things mean ensures that I can carry them with me, that they remain important to me wherever I am, sobbing in an auditorium cum sanctuary or sleeping through my fasting in a jet-lagged haze in Mumbai.
As I spent the day alone, I feel it’s important to make sure I have the full Yom Kippur dry cleaning experience, and better late than never. I did the fasting and the atonement, but I didn’t do much of the history. So I’m going to spend some time here talking about the meaning and history of Yom Kippur, which this year came in the middle of the Hindu Ceremony of Ganesh Chaturthi. And while Yom Kippur is the holiest and most solemn of days and universally celebrated within a monotheistic religion, and Ganesh Chaturthi is a joyful festival for one of many gods celebrated primarily here in the state of Maharashtra, there are more similarities than I might have thought at first glance.
Yom Kippur dates back to biblical times, if you believe such things really existed, and we know this because it’s mentioned in the Torah, more than once. It marks the end of our ten days of awe, and some people think that the imagery of the gates of prayer opening on Rosh Hashanah and closing on Yom Kippur comes from the days when the temple was still standing and its gates opened and closed daily.
The Torah refers to Yom Kippur, as Shabbat Shabbaton or Shabbat of complete rest, although I don’t know how complete a rest is if your stomach is growling. In the Talmud, Yom Kippur is called yoma, or The Day. In the days when the temple was still in existence, prayer as we know it was fundamentally different. The relationship between most people and G-d was conducted through a priest. Men (primarily) would travel to Jerusalem where they would purchase a sacrifice from a stall around the temple. They would ritually cleanse themselves in mikvahs, or baths, of which we can still find the existing structures preserved around the temple mount. They would present their sacrifice, often a goat or a sheep, to the priest, who would take it into the temple and kill it, and that was how most early Jews prayed. Sort of a G-d through goat situation.
So when we consider Yom Kippur as it first was, it is no surprise that it was centered almost completely around the temple, and segmented into two parts. The priest, or Kohen Gadol, had his responsibilities, which included the purification of the temple, cleansing it of the year’s accumulation of sins performed by the people of Israel. The temple, defiled and corrupted in the year that had passed since the last Yom Kippur, was no longer a place where God would choose to dwell. Therefore it had to be cleansed for his presence, like when your Mom comes over and you have to make sure your house is super clean so she doesn’t say anything. While the priest performed his rituals inside the temple, the people of Israel waited eagerly, performing the atonement part of the equation we are all so familiar with today. They wouldn’t work or eat that day, but just wait, patiently, cleansing themselves spiritually by ignoring their physical needs in favor of their religious ones.
Well, the temple is gone now, and we no longer have priests who act for us, instead we have Rabbis who guide as. So everything about the holiday has had to become internal, a spiritual inventory, tax season for the soul. At least we kept that fun fasting part, right?
So that’s the holiday arrived in Mumbai and celebrated. Now let’s talk about the holiday literally everyone else in the city was celebrating, which is a bit less of a downer, to be honest. Ganesh Chaturthi is a holiday celebrating Ganesh, the most lovable and cute of Hindu deities. Wonderfully enough for the purposes of comparison, this is also a 10 day holiday, just like our days of awe. In the area around Mumbai this is a very popular, massively practiced holiday, although given the multifaceted, multicultural nature of Hinduism there are many places all over the country that don’t celebrate this at all.
The deity Ganesh has a rather wonderful origin story. Shiva, for those of you who missed your Hinduism 101 classes, is one of three major Hindu gods (the others being Brahma and Vishnu). Shiva is the destroyer, and his consort is Parvati, goddess of beauty. Sort of a Hades-Persephone thing going on there, to compare it to Greek mythology. Shiva apparently was a fan of the walkabout, and would leave Parvati alone. Ganesh was not born in the traditional human sense of the word; he’s a god, after all. Instead, he was created by Parvati out of balm and sandalwood, and given life so that he could guard her while she bathed. When Shiva conveniently returned home during Parvati’s bath session, Ganesh, like the good guard he was, stopped him at the door, and Shiva responded rationally by cutting off Ganesh’s head. This explains, incidentally, why Shiva was not very popular at parties. Parvati was understandably miffed, and asked Shiva to resurrect her son, which he did, but he had to give him an elephant’s head because the original was presumably unusable. And so the elephant god was born. Again.
This holiday had been celebrated in different forms for years in this area, but it was made popular in the 1890’s by the social reformer and activist Lokmanya Tilak, who admired Ganesh as a god for all peoples, the everyman of gods who was universally celebrated. Tilak installed statues of Ganesh all over the city and popularized Ganesh Chaturthi as a national festival in order to “bridge the gap between Brahmins and ‘non-Brahmins.'” Tilak also popularized the practice of immersing the idol in a body of water when the festival ended, letting the clay return to the earth.
To celebrate this holiday today, people clear a space in their home, decorate it, and purchase a statue of Ganesh made out of clay. A priest consecrates the idol, calling the spirit of the god to inhabit it through the prana pratishtha ritual. Vedic hymns and prayers are sung to the idol, and offerings are made. Over the course of the 10 days of the festival (it can actually vary in length but here it’s usually 10 days so I’m going with that) aartis are practiced. An aarti is a prayer ceremony in which lights are lit to a deity (kind of like candles for the saints in a Catholic church) and songs and hymns are sung to honor it. Families and friends invite each other over to visit and pray with different statues of Ganesh in their respective shrines. At the end of the festival the idol is taken from the home and paraded to the shore, at least here in Mumbai, which sits on the sea. The idol is allowed to dissolve into nothing, and I heard that this year some of them were made out of fish food to lessen the environmental impact and make sure the fish get to celebrate Ganesh, as well.
Okay, so as I’m describing these, they couldn’t sound more different, right? But go with me here. Both of these holidays celebrate the cycle of the year, from Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, to Yom Kippur, the day we make sure the year really does feel new to us, and not mired in last year’s errors. We have this period of openness, of inventory, of appreciation and joy and solemnity and contemplation. The gates of prayer and repentance are open to us; it’s a liminal time.
So too is Ganesh Chaturthi a doorway in the year for Hindus. During the course of these ten days celebrating Ganesh, families meet with each other, they see the idol filled with the spirit of the god and they see it depart. There is life and death within this holiday, both with Ganesh as a god who died and was born again as a new entity, and with the idol that is sculpted and lives its ten day life and then dissolves away into nothing. The door between life and death is open, and it closes.
Of course, this is purely my own interpretation of this, as a lonely Jew looking for meaning after another Yom Kippur spent alone. Watching swarms of people pour onto the beach, their idols perched on pushcarts and tucked into trucks, I felt totally separate from all of these fervent believers, and on the other hand, I thought I understood a bit how they felt. Although the differences between the joy of Ganesh Chaturthi and the solemnity of Yom Kippur could not be more pronounced, the need to let something go, to let whatever you are holding onto, be it a sin or a statue, dissolve into the ocean and be carried away on the tide in order to start the year again, ready for whatever it brings, feels similar. This is the time in the course of the year to let holiness into our lives, to be in awe and enjoy the spiritual dry cleaning even if it comes at the cost of lunch.