Susan Speaks: Yom Kippur


Tonight marks the beginning of Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. When I was little, I was taught that it was the holiest, but my current rabbi insists that the holiest is the weekly Shabbat. I suspect he’s right.

Tonight, Jews around the world will get up from dinner and begin a 24-hour fast (okay, most will) that will help set the day apart. It is a day filled with prayer and reflection, a day for thinking on our lives, what we did wrong, what we can do better. It is serious and somber, which is so different from the many joyous celebrations that Judaism is filled with — although it sounds as if it’s not nearly so somber in Israel.

It is said that at the end of Yom Kippur, when the ram’s horn shofar blows one final time, the Gates of Repentance will close. These metaphoric gates opened on Rosh Hashanah ten days earlier; this signalled the beginning of the period of reflection and, you guessed it, repentance.

However, Yom Kippur has come to have a different meaning for me. I was pregnant with #2 when my book club read Lilian Nattel’s brilliant The River Midnight, a book about a small village — shetl — in Poland. The story centered on the midwife; the life centered around the temple.

Thus, when the midwife went into labor as Yom Kippur began, the townspeople left the temple. Instead of listening to the sacred Kol Nidre song, they listened to the midwife’s cries of pain.

This doesn’t sound like something that should resonate with a person. Yet the scene as Nattel wrote it was absolutely stunning; it drove home the beauty of the shetl and the importance of community. It haunted me, who’s always been more than a bit of a loner.

Plus, as I said, I was pregnant when I read the book. Upon finishing it, I looked at a calendar. My due date was only a few days after Yom Kippur. What were the chances…? I mean, really?

The evening of Yom Kippur, when the Kol Nidre prayer is sung, came and went.

The next afternoon, when I picked up my son from day care, I realized that yep, the daily Braxton-Hicks contractions were back. Same time, every day; the Tour Manager and I had been laughing at how very regular they were. These were stronger, though. And when I got home and put my son down for a nap, I listened to that little voice inside. The one that knows these things.

I called the Tour Manager at work, just to be safe.

Just before five o’clock on that Yom Kippur afternoon, I called my parents. They were on their way out the door to attend the concluding services when they heard the phone ring. Knowing I was due in days, they answered.

My daughter was born at ten o’clock that night, well after the Gates of Repentance were closed.

Yet I still equate the holiday with my little girl. I probably always will; she is, in her own way, my own Yom Kippur baby.

One day, I’ll hand her my copy of The River Midnight and see if the connection strikes her as deeply as it struck me. But until then, as everyone in temple around me prays for forgiveness and redemption, I’ll be remembering the joy of a new beginning.

A note for those of you who noticed: I called the Kol Nidre both a prayer and a song. In kabbalistic beliefs, the Hebrew words for prayer and song have the same numeric value. Thus, prayer equals song, a belief I personally think is totally underutilized. Thankfully, my rabbi agrees and we are a congregation that sings. A lot.



  1. E

    September 21, 2007 6:51 pm

    I can see why that book touched you so and hope that it is one your daughter also holds dear. I don’t know what a greeting or wish is for a good Yom Kippur, but I do hope you have a good one. BR/BR/Wandered over from Michele.

  2. BreadBox

    September 21, 2007 7:43 pm

    On this high holy day, I bid you and yours peace!BR/BR/Michele would agree with me, I think.BR/N.

  3. Shephard

    September 21, 2007 7:46 pm

    Very nice remembrance, and I enjoyed reading about Yom Kippur.BR/Michele says hello!BR/~S

  4. Shari

    September 21, 2007 8:41 pm

    I don’t blame you for calling her yourown Yom Kippur baby. :)BR/BR/Thanks for enlightening me about Yom Kippur. BR/BR/Hello, Michele sent me and I am glad she did.

  5. Missy

    September 21, 2007 10:54 pm

    What a beautiful story, Susan. Thank you for sharing.

  6. bunnygirl

    September 21, 2007 11:51 pm

    Reflection leads naturally to new beginnings, both literal and figurative.BR/BR/Peace and joyous resolutions to you!

  7. Robin

    September 22, 2007 7:40 am

    What a beautiful connection. I can well see why you’d like to pass it on.BR/BR/While many of us here in Israel have not spent the day in synagogue, the sense of community as the entire town (the entire country, really) gathers in the streets to talk and watch their children play is quite overwhelming.

  8. Dewey

    September 22, 2007 11:14 am

    Wow, thanks for posting this; I have never actually had an explanation of this holiday.

  9. J. Kaye Oldner

    September 22, 2007 11:34 am

    Wanted to come on over and check out your blog – very nice! 🙂

  10. Joely Sue Burkhart

    September 23, 2007 12:42 am

    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story! I’m sure your daughter will adore it and the book when you give it to her.

  11. Pearl

    September 23, 2007 9:47 am

    Hello Michele sent me. I didn’t know a lot about that. Thanks.BR/BR/Happy BD to your girl.

  12. craziequeen

    September 23, 2007 9:48 am

    “Instead of listening to the sacred Kol Nidre song, they listened to the midwife’s cries of pain.”BR/BR/I think that sentence is so telling. The future of the faith is in the children born today.BR/BR/I can see why you like the story, and I love the idea that you are going to pass the book onto your daughter when she gets old enough :-)BR/BR/Michele sent me to say hi, Susan.BR/BR/cq

  13. Jean-Luc Picard

    September 23, 2007 11:36 am

    A friend recently told me about shofurs. I had not heard of them before.BR/BR/Michele sent me here.

  14. Linda R. Moore

    September 23, 2007 1:28 pm

    What a lovely post. BR/BR/May your next year be peaceful and kind to you.

  15. Carmi

    September 23, 2007 3:57 pm

    She was definitely bashert…as was the timing of her arrival. How neat that you got to start the year off with such significance.BR/BR/May the coming year continue to bless you and your mishpacha with health and goodness.BR/BR/I deliberately sat by myself through Neilah this year. I didn’t want to talk to anyone: I simply wanted to reflect. It was so peaceful.

  16. julia

    September 24, 2007 12:56 pm

    I’m quite certain a part of you resonated with your daughter’s future birth when you read the book. Sometimes you just know things.

  17. Jill

    September 24, 2007 4:59 pm

    Thanks for sharring that moment!!BR/And thank for sharring a little bit of your faith with us!! Being from a almost all catholic place, and didn’t have the chance to have a religion course in university, I appreciate every little part of knowledge from other religion!!

  18. Robin

    October 10, 2008 3:42 pm

    I’ve come to treasure the uniquely (secular) Israeli approach to Yom Kippur and find peace in its own rhythms to replace the peace I used to find elsewhere.BR/BR/Gmar hatima tova my friend, to you and yours.

  19. netta

    October 12, 2008 10:33 am

    This is a beautiful entry. Your daughter is very lucky.BR/BR/I hope you had a wonderful holy day. BR/BR/:)

  20. Lilian Nattel

    January 1, 2009 11:25 am

    I just came across this post by accident or happy coincidence. What a lovely thing to write about, Susan! I want to add something myself to this. The River Midnight really ended for me when my second child came into my arms. I knew when it would be. Months ahead of time I told my husband. Yes…it was Yom Kippur in China. The adoption paperwork had inexplicable delays, so frustrating at the time, but in the end it felt “beshert.” He fasted, I didn’t. The photograph on my website is when I first held her in my arms.

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