In my predominantly Jewish elementary school, classes were empty when Rosh Hashanah fell on a weekday. Every year, in the opening days of the new school year, the early momentum of lessons and activities would come to a grinding halt. The classrooms were populated by a few students — usually less than a dozen — as most were absent, allegedly observing the Jewish New Year. Some actually attended religious services. Most, like me, were just at home — watching game shows and cartoons and rejoicing in the fact that they were getting out of a day at school.
My family did not belong to a synagogue. We were not what you would call "practicing" Jews. There was very little religion in my home. Sure, we had a box of matzo at Passover and I saw my mom eat gefilte fish every so often, but my dad worked on all Jewish holidays and we ate bacon with our eggs on Sunday mornings. I attended Rosh Hashanah services a couple of times with friends. I found them to be cold and unwelcoming, especially to those of us who did not speak Hebrew. So, in turn, I also found them tedious and boring. They were rambling, repetitive, hours-long affairs whose indeterminate message (if any) was lost on my wandering attention and faint beliefs.
When I met my wife, I was exposed to a whole new outlook on the stuffy world of Judaism. My wife and her family injected Judaism into nearly every aspect of their lives. Holiday meals were fun, warm family functions, rich with tradition and camaraderie. I dutifully requested days off from work to attend services with my wife and her family, marveling as my father-in-law chanted from the Torah before a joyous, packed and responsive congregation. This solemn feeling of honor continued when my son was born. Mrs Pincus and I proudly brought our boy to watch and participate in the continuation of a family tradition. And that tradition carried through with consistency in our home, with candle lighting every Friday evening and active celebrations in a calendar filled with Jewish holidays. Of course, every year, I would secure vacation days on my work schedule for observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
As I grew older and my ever-present cynicism fermented, I began to analyze and reassess the whole "religion thing." I saw how religion was used by people as a threat, as a status and as a means of passing personal judgment. It became less and less about love and charity and worshiping a god of one's choice and more about one-upmanship and finger-pointing. I witnessed clergy treating their esteemed position as a "job," punching a virtual time clock like a worker in McDonald's, instead of one of an example-setting community leader. I came to see that religion was being used as a Teflon® shield to hide behind in the unjust, self-righteous violation of free speech and civil rights. In addition, people — plain, ordinary people — were twisting the doctrines of religion and taking it upon themselves to interpret the so-called "word of God" as justification for their own petty agendas. Suddenly, worship and respect for a higher being was no longer the main focus. Hell, it wasn't even in the top ten.
The once festive holiday dinners at my in-law's saw the guest list shrink and the geniality dwindle. Whether they chose to acknowledge it or not, the elaborate meal preparation took a toll on my in-law's advancing age. That, coupled with tense emotions, waning affection and personality clashes among family members made for less-than-enjoyable gatherings. Dinnertime discussions became heated and sometimes bitter, not at all reflective of an assembly for a happy occasion.
I stopped going to synagogue several years ago. I was appalled by recent disrespectful treatment of my father-in-law — a learned student of Jewish protocol — by the reigning, mortal "powers-that-be" that dictated the "clique-y" synagogue policy. My son, a product of 12 years of intense study at Jewish day school, had grown up and reassessed his life priorities — and religion was one of the first casualties. I had become disillusioned with the whole bastardized, contradictory mish-mash into which organized religion had evolved. Or maybe it was like that all along and I just opened my eyes to it.
This year, something strange happened. By "strange," I might actually mean "liberating." I discovered that I had used all of the vacation days allotted to me by my employer for this calendar year. I was unable to take off from work for Rosh Hashanah. So, I went to work. Guess what happened? I worked. And life went on. Same as the day before. As a matter of fact, exactly as it had the day before. The earth did not swallow me whole. I was not struck by a bolt of lightning thrown by a vengeful God from his lofty abode in the heavens. I just went to work. Elsewhere, some people went to services, where they stood with their prayer books opened to the wrong page, chanting the wrong tune to a passage written in a language they don't understand, all the while judging the woman in the fifth row for wearing a skirt and blouse that do not match.
Happy New Year everybody. You'll probably still be writing "5775" on your checks for the next two months.