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The Year I Skipped Yom Kippur Services

After my best friend died of complications from HIV, I avoided synagogue and found sanctuary in my mother’s house instead. And that’s where I found a space to atone, and a path to move forward.

Amy Abrahams
October 11, 2016
Illustration by Tablet
Illustration by Tablet
This article is part of AIDS and the Jewish Community.
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After six days of crying, I turned up at my mother’s door in northwest London. It was the first time I had seen her since my friend Ben died six days earlier. It was also almost Yom Kippur—an hour before Kol Nidre services were set to begin.

“I can’t go to shul,” I said, as she bundled me into the house past sprawling stems of passion flowers and autumn’s first wave of daddy-longlegs.

She drew me close as I slightly bent to put my head on her shoulder. My face creased as I attempted to force back tears. She squeezed hard, rubbed my back, then sniffed in my ear. She had a cold. We disengaged. “OK,” she said. “Let’s stay here tonight.”

All week, people had looked at me strangely: colleagues with attentive stares full of pity, fellow commuters on the London Underground pretending not to notice my shoulders shaking. But my mother, a 5-foot lioness, protective, gregarious and kind, looked at me exactly as she would any day. “Talk to me in the kitchen,” she said, wandering off. “We need to eat.” I stood in the hallway for a minute, then followed.

My mother always dealt with death not with awkward sentiments, but with clinical acceptance. At 15, she watched her father leave the idyll of the family home for work and never return. Heart attack. So an emotional distance born from self-preservation formed when she was still young. She deals with death the way we should probably all deal with it: as an inevitability.

But Ben was 32. And 32 is not an inevitability. It is theft.

I was angry. So, so angry.

I was not 100 percent committed to my boycott of Yom Kippur services; I had packed shul clothes in my overnight bag. Part of me wanted to go—it was what I’d always done, and skipping it made me feel guilty (guilt being an excellent feeling to top up right before the big day). But for now, I’d stay home with my mother.

“Let’s see how things are in the morning,” she said, ladling carrot soup into two bowls. We sipped soup, the silence punctuated only by the occasional cough or sneeze, and ripped off bits of challah as the start of the fast drew nearer.

Ben was a soulmate—though he would have hated me using that word. We met working at a celebrity and fashion magazine in 2006. He was senior to me, effortlessly cool, debonair handsome, aloof just enough to mean that friendship felt like an honor. I was the nice Jewish girl gone rogue from middle-class suburbia. He was the whip-smart Madonna-obsessive from a working-class town in the Shropshire countryside. While my teenage job had been teaching Hebrew reading in the cheder on Sunday mornings (hoping none of the rebbetzins would detect my hangover), his was picking damaged tomatoes off a factory line, plotting escape. We bonded quickly over an absurdist sense of humor, a love of theater, musings over hot boys, and a propensity for daydreaming. We’d scheme endlessly, scribbling down ideas over a bottle of Malbec and French cheese.

“Let’s run away to the seaside.”

“Let’s live in an artists’ commune.”

“Let’s write a novel together.”

We were the perfect platonic couple, and I was smitten. He died so young, we never made it past the honeymoon stage.

The circumstances surrounding Ben’s death were complicated. He had been getting sicker, but no one knew why; he had been hospitalized for a month, but had then been released; he was diagnosed with HIV while there, but had probably suspected far longer; he was doing better, but then an infection a month later robbed his life. By the time I arrived at my mother’s house for Yom Kippur, I had spent days trying to explain a story with large chunks of text ripped out. My mother did not ask many questions. I was glad. I had too many questions myself.

I awoke the following morning in my old bedroom to the sound of my mother in the bathroom next door. Slippered feet padded about on carpet, more coughing and sneezing. The crank of the cold tap being turned on. I was facing a white wall. The day seemed blank. It felt as though the lights had gone out inside me.

Ben, I thought. One week gone today.

However imperceptible my stirrings, they registered on the maternal sensor. Well-manicured nails rapped on the door. There was the polite gesture of a pause, then she appeared in the doorway, surveying me with a tilted head.

“I can’t even offer you a cup of tea,” she said, as though that would solve everything.

“I’m fine,” I said. I say this a lot.

“Shul?” she asked casually, but she knew the answer.

I shook my head. “I’m not going.”

It took a lot for me to skip services on Yom Kippur. It has always been my favorite festival. I thrive on the drama of the service: I love the mournful tunes and minor keys. I sing all the songs loudly. I try not to talk. I’m not interested in gossipy bad-breath whispers between sitting and standing as the ark opens and closes. I find comfort in reflection, even when I’m not following every word. Plus, I’m a journalist; I need deadlines. And there’s no deadline more formidable than one marked the Day of Atonement.

Each year, I returned to the family synagogue, the Orthodox community that had known me since I was in the womb. After my parents divorced, my mother remained there, even as my father moved to another community and remarried, and my older sister joined a new congregation with her now-husband. My adult gesture of autonomy meant moving further east to a part of London that didn’t even have a synagogue. It was refreshing to walk down the street and not know anyone or feel a sting of judgment if I was spotted driving on Shabbat. But without a shul of my own, I would make the pilgrimage back to my childhood home each High Holiday season, to familiar faces in a community a little bit older, grayer or, worse, absent. A growing congregation of ghosts now existing in parallel.

In my synagogue, the Hebrew words da lifnei mi atta omed, “Know before whom you stand,” are written in bulbous gold thread stitched on the ark’s white curtain. But if I went to shul that day, just a week after Ben’s death, I would not know before whom I would be standing. An angry God? A cruel God? A forgiving God? On Yom Kippur, we read, “Who will live and who will die?” It suddenly felt too literal, too direct. My Jewishness is imprinted into my DNA and I’ve always believed in something, but I didn’t understand Ben’s death. I prayed for Ben. It did not help. I suppose I shouldn’t have started it with, “I know I don’t pray very often anymore, but…”

“I’m going back to bed,” said my mother, now an unexpected comrade in my boycott. I realized she wouldn’t leave me on my own today. I stared at the ceiling for a while, running over the ways I could have helped Ben more—what small butterfly wings of extra phone calls or visits could have altered the outcome. I wish I’d held his hand the last time we were together, bundled on his sofa eating a rhubarb crumble he’d made. I added more regrets and ‘what ifs’ to the pile. It had grown so high, I feared it would topple and suffocate me.

I got up, dug around in my bag, and pulled on an old university sweatshirt; my shul outfit, a just-modest-enough gray Zara dress, stayed draped over a chair. I crossed the landing to my mother’s bedroom. She glanced up, then pulled back the duvet cover. I got into her bed. At 28 years old, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done this, but I didn’t know what else to do.

It felt strange, this intimacy—her lying there, head and shoulders propped up on three pillows, side-eyeing me with concern but not saying much. I looked at her face, free from makeup, her soft pale skin, her blonde lashes and faint eyebrows, just like mine.

She was a looking glass of time. She was what’s to come.

Even though we didn’t go to synagogue, we still fasted, which only compounded the emptiness. With no meals, the day lacked structure. Hours passed. I dozed, my mother read. We talked, she slept. Neither of us bothered looking at our phones all day. There was no music, no TV. There were crows cawing outside. There was the sound of breathing. I could hear a boy and a girl in a garden nearby. They were on a trampoline; I had forgotten it was a Saturday.

“I wish I had traveled more,” said my mother. She wasn’t yet 60 but she was speaking in the past tense. This worried me.

“You still can,” I said. “The world’s not going anywhere.”

“It’s harder when you’re on your own,” she said, her voice dropping. My parents divorced in 1999, but nothing had ever stopped my mother charging forward. Her default setting is optimism, so this tone was surprising. “It’s expensive,” she added.

‘You don’t have to fly first class,” I teased.

Her eyebrow arched like a Disney villain.

“Well, where do you want to go?” I asked.

“Where wouldn’t I?” She turned a globe in her mind: India and the Taj Mahal, the Inca trail at Machu Picchu. “Oh,” she said with the most enthusiasm expressed in the room all day, “I’d love to see the Terracotta Army in China.” Her voice was full of color. Her green eyes flashed.

“What’s stopping you?”

“I guess I’m saving some money for a rainy day.”

“But this is a rainy day,” I said.

Ben’s death had caught us all by surprise. Even him—he had a job interview lined up the following week. I had to email them to explain why he wouldn’t be coming.

“No regrets,” I said to my mother.

“You’re right,” she said, with the look of a woman making plans.

In shul, the Viduy confession must be strange for an outsider to see. A thronging room of Jews all facing the same direction, beating their chest with their right hand as they read a list of sins. A beat per sin. I’ve always liked this ritual—a primal action emphasizing the day’s spiritual exigency. But dressed down, unadorned, un-made-up in my mother’s bed, I didn’t need to beat my chest. My heart was wide open, vulnerable, aching. I had been confessing all day. I felt the unpredictability of life like a wound. I felt an urgency to live my life fully and truthfully in a way that I had never felt before.

The sky was dark. The fast was over. The festival had gone for another year. “This has been the most wonderful Yom Kippur,” said my mother, as she pulled back the covers to go downstairs and make something for us to eat. I smiled at her as she walked out the room, and for a moment, I felt my energy reserves power up and switch on all the lights again.

Later that night, I walked in my front door and threw my car keys on the dining table. My flat felt empty and cold. I was tired. My phone rang just as I realized I never heard the shofar. It was my mother.

“What did I forget?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing. I just wanted you to know I’ve booked a trip to China,” she said, coolly.

“What? When?”

“Just this minute. I’m going for a month next spring,” she said. “Thank you.”

Six years have passed since Ben died and I turned up at my mother’s door that September day. Each year since, I have made it back to a shul, increasingly searching out new places where the old traditions feel less anachronistic with my liberal ways of thinking. I used to think that the heavy atmosphere of shul was vital for the reflection, but there is no year I remember more clearly than 2010, when I swapped formality and ritual for the improvised sanctuary of my mother’s bedroom. Although I didn’t realize it then, she was right: It really was a wonderful Yom Kippur. In the most difficult of times, the idea of starting again, trying harder, aiming higher, being kinder, helped me survive. And I am grateful to have a day each year to do that all again.

Amy Abrahams is freelance journalist from London who has written for Glamour, Red Magazine, Marie Claire, and Condé Nast Traveller. Follow her on Twitter @Amy_Abrahams.

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