Ari Sklar (left) and Ashton Sklar participate in a drive-in Yom Kippur service put on by Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in North Miami, Sept. 28, 2020. (Photo/JTA-Joe Raedle-Getty Images)
Ari Sklar (left) and Ashton Sklar participate in a drive-in Yom Kippur service put on by Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in North Miami, Sept. 28, 2020. (Photo/JTA-Joe Raedle-Getty Images)

Asking forgiveness year after year — it’s what we do

When I worked at the Oakland Tribune, a copy editor with a drinking problem had been harassing me. Under his breath, Bill (not his real name) would utter, “Janet … Janet” in a creepy voice. He would try to distract me from my writing. Once, he disconnected my answering machine because I hadn’t silenced it, causing me to lose an important message. When I became angry, he turned bitter and we stopped speaking.

But in the month of Elul, I approached him: “Bill,” I said, “Yom Kippur is approaching, and we Jews try to start off our new year with a clean slate. I’d like us to make amends.”

He paused and nodded.

Sometime after the Oakland Tribune folded, Bill and I had lunch. He told me he had never forgotten our conversation about making amends before Yom Kippur. He learned something about Judaism, and so did I.

What do we Jews have to teach? It’s not just Torah, which we share with the world. And it’s not just our foods. As I see it, we’ve learned to negotiate two worlds that overlap. Sometimes, we are part of the mainstream, but at this time of year, we step away, turning inward.

Walking past shops and restaurants some years ago during a break in Yom Kippur services, I did a double take. While the rest of the world was on midweek standard time, lunching outdoors and going about business as usual, when I stepped outside the synagogue, the bright sunlight startled me, and I stood apart.

These Days of Awe are islands of holiness. Living part of our lives outside standard time, we move between two zones and two calendars, each with different sabbaths, different celebrations, different months and even different years.

This year, while my neighbors enjoy the traditional close of summer with barbecues, I plan to mark the advent of 5782 in my synagogue, wearing a mask as I sing the melodies that call me home. On the evening of Sept. 15, an ordinary Wednesday, I’ll sing the heart-wrenching Kol Nidre melody. For me, it’s not about the formulaic liturgy but about the call to repentance that underlies them. Every year, I return, again and again.

In 1988, three weeks after my first marriage ended, I returned to a religion in which I was born but not raised. Growing up in a predominantly Jewish section in Queens, being Jewish didn’t require a special effort. Later, I married an atheist who had strong words about all religions, including the Christianity in which he had been raised. I began to dip my toes into Judaism, but afraid of antagonizing my then-husband and jeopardizing the marriage, I retreated. But when he left, I made the special effort. I returned, alone, while my children’s lives were taking other directions.

My non-Jewish relatives often ask me why they know so little about our High Holidays. One reason is that unlike Hanukkah and Passover, they don’t coincide with Christian celebrations. They’re buried amid the bustle of back to school. Another is that the need for a Day of Atonement, originally accompanied by the sacrifice of the scapegoat, was regarded as unnecessary by mainstream Christianity. Because Jesus died on the cross to save those who believe — a substitutionary atonement — Christians are spared the need of an annual day of repentance.

As one of my daughter’s friends explained to me, “Because of Jesus, we don’t have animal sacrifices.” Aghast at her explanation, I told her that Jews haven’t had animal sacrifices since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE.

No, we Jews aren’t clear on the concept of substitutionary atonement. Nor do we appear periodically before a confessional for absolution. But each Yom Kippur, we confess. In the Al Chet prayer, we beat our chests as we recite a litany of communal sins, perhaps from Arrogance to excessive Zealotry.

Group atonement shields us from embarrassment as it bonds the community. But it does not exempt us from personal atonement. That’s why I had that conversation with Bill, and why I try to clear the air with those I may have hurt through thoughtlessness, carelessness or a too-sharp tongue.

Every year, when I phone my kids and ask for forgiveness, I picture them rolling their eyes as they say, “Mom, you did this last year.”

“Yes,” I reply, “and if I’m still around next year, I’ll be seeking forgiveness again. It’s what we do.”

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is writing a memoir on her late-life romance. She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].