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Keller, Elias

Elias Keller is a Philadelphia native. His fiction has appeared in Wordhaus, Literary Orphans, Crack the Spine, Every Day Fiction, APIARY, Slush Pile, Forge, and elsewhere. He currently lives in New Orleans.www.eliaskeller.com.

On the Holiest Day of the Year

Elias Keller

“What’s wrong with you?” Julie snapped, rebuffing my lusty kiss like I was a slobbery dog. “It’s Yom Kippur.”

She didn’t have to remind me. I’d been dreading this day for weeks—actually, ever since the beginning of our relationship nine months ago. Early autumn had always been a dreaded time of the year for me, when pressure to attend synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur came on full blast, usually from my mother, but this year from Julie, who was not so easily ignored.

We’d met at a Jewish singles event where Julie had been hunting for a husband and I’d been hunting for free food. If not the stuff of sonnets, our relationship was convenient and tranquil. I was a good boyfriend, going to engagement parties, potlucks, a wedding in Cape Cod. At social events with Julie I was witty and personable, considerate and thoughtful, complimenting her pretty face and her trim figure, especially in front of her friends. She respected my job as a copywriter at an environmental activism organization, although I sensed that she was concerned about my earning potential in this line of work.

Right from the start, though, our difference in opinion about synagogue threatened the sustainability of our relationship. For me, going to services was roughly as enjoyable as cleaning my toilet—but less productive. Julie, however, went most Friday nights for Shabbat and occasionally on Saturday mornings.

“You really like services?” I’d asked.

“I do. I like the community. I like being part of something.”

During the honeymoon phase of the relationship, I went with her on a couple of Friday nights, but Julie knew I didn’t like synagogue—nor did I like facing the reality that she did. So it became an issue we tacitly agreed to table, at least for a while.

But now it was Yom Kippur. Julie was smart and made it clear that she didn’t want to force me to join her on Thursday morning—“But I’d really like it,” she’d said over the phone, in the firm tone that made her an effective nursing school administrator. “It’s not supposed to be fun,” she pointed out, hearing my reluctance. “It’s about reflecting back on the year, your sins, and asking for forgiveness.”

“I know”—and instead of trying to explain, as I had with my mother so many times before, that I could do all that anywhere: at home, in a library, or outdoors, I realized that refusing Julie might make for a chaste weekend—“You’re right.”

So at ten o’clock on Thursday morning, dressed in an outdated charcoal-gray suit that smelled of camphor, I arrived with Julie at a sprawling temple near Rittenhouse Square, one of Philadelphia’s posh neighborhoods. Julie introduced me to a few people milling on the steps and then we stepped inside, nudging through the crowded lobby of congregants in formal wear. This was the synagogue’s busiestday, the highest of the High Holy Days, the Day of Atonement, when Jewish law forbids eating and drinking, even water, along with bathing, wearing of scent, and “marital relations”—only prayer and expiation from sunrise to sundown.

I rummaged through the loaner bin and drew out a flimsy white yarmulke, which Julie stood on her tiptoes to bobby-pin onto my moppish hair. She was in a new maroon skirt and wearing more makeup than usual.

“How long do you usually stay?” I asked.

Julie raised a delicate auburn eyebrow. “Until it’s over.”

Once the usher bid us entry to the sanctuary, we foraged for two open seats in the densely-packed pews. It’d been a while since I’d been to High Holy Day services, but nothing had changed. Boredom hung humidly in the air: men dozed or read appeal cards to buy Israeli bonds; women craned their necks to critique the annual Yom Kippur fashion show; children too old for the babysitting room rooted through their mothers’ purses. The papery smell of tissue-thin prayer book pages, musty from disuse, mixed with a faint bouquet of perfumes and colognes.

We’d hardly settled into our seats when they were ordered to stand up by a hoary rabbi, who chanted a tuneless Hebrew prayer. Indeed, nothing had changed.

“Be seated—page 201—”

The time dragged on and I battled to stay awake, reading the English texts in the back of the prayer-book, one of which was Anne Frank’s final diary entry. “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” I mused on the girl’s extraordinary soul, her miserable death in the concentration camp—and the profitable relationships between the Nazi Party and American corporations, the same ones that still supported whatever warlord or dictator that helped them monetize every last natural resource on the planet.

“All rise—page 209—”

On our third date Julie and I had gone to an Indian restaurant, where she ordered a diet Coke with her dinner. “We should be careful about supporting that company,” I’d suggested. “They steal water from indigenous people—in India, actually—for their bottling plants.” When Julie looked down uneasily, I patted her hand. “It’s OK,” I said. “You didn’t know. It’s not your fault.”

Julie spread her napkin over her lap. “It’s good you know about those things.” She didn’t retract the soda order and I didn’t press the issue. But that was my first hint that despite a lot of compatibilities—we were both frugal and didn’t like loud bars—our deeper values might not—

“Page 218—All join in responsive reading—”

Julie sang along while I stayed silent. Recently, the prospect of marriage and a family had started to feel as flimsy as the yarmulke now on my head. We’d never agree on how to raise a child, for example, or even what to feed it: Julie was “mostly vegetarian” and didn’t seem inclined to transition to a vegan lifestyle. I thought also of the new clothes Julie had bought me for Hanukkah, all of which came from overseas sweatshops despite her knowing that I strongly preferred to buy secondhand or at least American-made clothing.

“All rise for silent prayer—”

On the other hand, Julie did offer regular access to a delicious and perfectly-groomed female body, not to mention her nice apartment that I much preferred to my ramshackle house and irksome housemates. But besides those pleasantries, I was hesitant to end a relationship over what she ate or the kind of shirts she bought me. Was that petty and sanctimonious? Or principled and pragmatic?

“Be seated—we resume on page 266—”

I excused myself to the restroom, where I patted my face with cold water and studied the Ohio address of the paper towel dispenser manufacturer. Then I paced around the lobby, peering into the closed Judaica shop, reading a flyer advertising a bus trip to a Broadway show, and glowering at the hulking “Tree of Life” plaque with gilded leaves honoring synagogue donors. I looked longingly at the heavy wooden doors leading to the street—only ninety minutes left—and trudged back toward the sanctuary.

The perspiring usher hustled me toward my seat, whispering that the sermon was starting. And I perked up a bit as I sat back down next to Julie. The white-haired rabbi looked wizened enough. Perhaps he would have something of value to say, maybe even something that would throw some light onto my relationship with Julie. After all, I thought, looking at her pretty face and attentive eyes, so what if our values weren’t identical? She wasn’t a bad person. She cared, in her way, about the environmental and social justice issues. We often watched documentaries together or forwarded thought-provoking articles to each other.

“Are you OK?” Julie whispered to me.

I nodded and patted her hand. “There was just a line for the bathroom.”

But the old rabbi remained seated while an attractive middle-aged woman with frosted hair approached the pulpit with a businesslike stride. From twenty rows away I saw the flash of her diamond ring as she adjusted the microphone.

“Who’s that?”

Julie shushed me. “The president of the board.”

The woman greeted the congregation and began her sermon by addressing the declining engagement of young Jewish people in synagogue communities. Next the president admonished those who wanted the benefits of Judaism without the responsibilities. “Membership makes up the largest part of our operating budget. And our dues are very reasonable. We even have special packages for people under thirty-five. And during our fall membership drive, joining fees are waived, which is a big savings you shouldn’t miss out on.”

A month ago, Julie had gone to sleep early for another charity 5K the next day. I stayed up to read about the clearcutting of old-growth forests at the behest of real estate developers. When I got a drink of water at Julie’s refrigerator, I saw a windowed envelope addressed to the synagogue. Infuriated by what I’d just read, I hadn’t given much thought to the envelope. Now I realized: her dues payment.

For a minute or so I tried to have some empathy for the board president. Maybe she found this sales pitch as offensive as I did. Maybe she’d been pressured or coerced by the board to do it. It was possible. It wasn’t too unreasonable that the synagogue would try to gather new members when there was such a huge captive audience. I figured that any moment she’d step down and the real sermon would begin.

But my attempt at empathy fell like a chopped tree when the president segued into a plan to build a modernized temple in a nearby suburb. “It’s important that we position ourselves to compete effectively in a shrinking market. With a new building, we’d attract new members, and improve our long-term fiscal outlook, by owning property rather than paying the high rents of Center City.”

I was bouncing my knee so vigorously that Julie clamped her hand over it. “Is the service over after this?” I rasped out.

Julie frowned, keeping her eyes on the pulpit. She had nodded when the president mentioned expensive urban rents. “There’s still the mourner’s service.”

“You’re staying for that?”

“Yes—my aunt,” Julie replied, shushing me when a congregant glanced over reproachfully.

The board president prattled on. I vibrated furiously, scowling monstrously, my breaths disgruntled huffs as I imagined beautiful old trees being ripped from the earth to make space for a new temple and more gilded plaques. Not to mention that there were so many important topics the sermon could have addressed on the holiest day of the year: racism and bigotry, global poverty, ecological destruction, corporate greed—

“The good news is that we’ve identified an available site near thriving new subdivisions and older adult living communities—”

When a woman glared back at my hostile fidgeting, Julie poked me sharply. “What’s wrong with you?” she hissed, close to tears. “You’re embarrassing me.”

“So I’m delighted to mark this special day by announcing our “Building the Future” campaign—”

That was it. I stood up abruptly and sidestepped out of the row, knocking a prayer book off an old man’s lap and stepping on a woman’s purse. People looked over crossly and the president stopped speaking.

“Excuse me, Madame President”—my voice filled the sanctuary as hundreds of heads turned toward me. In the vast silence I just couldn’t find a good reason to stay silent myself.

“Before I go, can I just make one suggestion? When you build your new temple—don’t forget the golden calf.”

Before anyone could react I stomped out to the lobby, spiking my yarmulke into the loaner bin and bursting through the wooden doors out onto the street. After walking blindly for a few blocks, thinking it would probably be best if I never saw Julie again, I realized something: my computer was in her apartment, and, come to think of it, my house keys. And my housemates were at work. So I started toward Julie’s place, even though I knew it’d be a while before she got home. Well, I’d have some time to think, maybe even atone. I’d always claimed I could atone anywhere, and maybe here on Julie’s stoop was the best place.

As I thought again of the board president’s sermon, and my outburst, I realized I was most angry at my own naiveté. Corruption, occupation, ecocide—of course the sermon ignored all that. Because “all that” bought the president her diamond ring and her suburban construction site. Just like it bought Julie her diet Coke and designer skirts.

But I wasn’t so different, was I? I’d known Julie wasn’t right for me for a while, maybe even since that dinner at the Indian restaurant. But I’d ignored the mismatch of our deepest values and seen only what I’d wanted to see: a pretty face, a sexy body, and a comfortable apartment.

I knew our relationship was over: even if it could survive today, I didn’t think it should. The question now was what to do, what to say, when I did see Julie—wholesome Julie, who only wanted to marry a nice Jewish man and raise a family and be part of a synagogue community. She’d always been good to me. She didn’t deserve to be mortified like that in front of the congregation. But what was there to say, really? Except, perhaps, and I chanted the words over and over, bowing my head, trying to summon the spirit of true atonement: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

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