Let’s be real, you’re not a very good Jew. Madonna speaks better Hebrew than you. You have no idea why the Jewish calendar year is 5771. You feast on swine, you date goyim, you haven’t been to synagogue since the mid-5760s. When you planned your vacation, Israel didn’t even make the shortlist. If people still worshipped idols of the pagan god Baal, you’d totally be waiting in line for tickets, with your hair styled like Baal’s and a matching Baal T-shirt. Alas in a moment of weakness, or under the influence of some kind of emotional waterboarding technique, you’ve consented to attend this year’s Yom Kippur services. Not even your beloved Baal can save you now.
Unless you’re planning to repent this year, you’d do well to come up with a constructive way to pass those endless hours in the vortex. Yom Kippur services are a lot like sitting for 12 hours in a doctor’s waiting room—only in this waiting room, the doctor never arrives. And, worse, there aren’t any parenting magazines to numb your mind. So, this Yom Kippur my advice is this: Bring some good reading.
Sit back in your synagogue seat, enjoy Hitchens’ assault on religion and, before you know it, you’ll find yourself at the brink of that ageless truce between belief and skepticism which goes by the name “the break fast” and usually takes the form of a bagel with lox.
Some might argue that brazenly opening up a book during a prayer service is worse than a sacrilege, it’s bad manners. Perhaps. But it’s also tradition. In the Orthodox synagogues of my youth, a statistically significant percentage of congregants read books during services. True, these outside books tend to be of a religious nature, but the principle still applies: Only a fool, or a saint, wouldn’t bring some backup reading to an all-day service. From what I hear, this practice dates back to the old country—who are we to break with tradition?
Now, a quick word for gentiles attending Yom Kippur services, in the hopes of pleasing their Jewish in-laws or prospective in-laws: Don’t be shy about bringing in outside reading. On the contrary, make a point of doing it. What better way to demonstrate how thoroughly comfortable you feel among God’s holy nation? And if people give you hard time, just smile at them over your illicit book and repeat these words: “As Hillel, the great sage, used to say, If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when?” They’ll back off, and then you can continue reading in peace.
Of course, if you’re going to arrogantly trample upon the norms of a sacred space, you ought to at least obey a few ground rules. Don’t get fancy and don’t be a schmuck: No e-readers, no weighty tomes. Use hardcover books—you can remove the dust jacket, giving it a nice inconspicuous look, not unlike a prayer book. And don’t bring along a book that’s noticeably thicker than a prayer book. No ambitious “social novels,” no Jonathan Franzen books.
The golden rule: No hilarity. Uproarious laughter during prayer services is a fantastic way to ruin Yom Kippur for everyone. Laughter would be particularly egregious during those silent prayer intervals, i.e. precisely when you’re most bored and thus most tempted to dip into your contraband book. So keep it strictly deadpan. Tearjerkers, obviously, are highly recommended.
Your choice of books is essential, and can make or break a Yom Kippur. There are basically two schools of thought here. The first school would argue for books in the Yom Kippur spirit and the second, for the opposite, for those that pointedly subvert the entire premise of the holy day. Let’s start with the second category, books that are in keeping with the Yom Kippur spirit.
1) Anything by Franz Kafka
On Yom Kippur, you can’t go wrong with Franz Kafka. His breakthrough moment as writer is in fact related to Yom Kippur. After the conclusion of the Day of Atonement in 1912, Kafka began—and rapidly completed—writing The Judgment. This is not a coincidence. Kafka works heavily with the themes of Yom Kippur: the shame and wretched inevitability of sin, the estrangement from an omnipotent father-deity, the affliction of the body through fasting, the tossing of a sacrificial goat—a scapegoat—off a cliff. The darkly humorous biblical Book of Jonah, which is recited on Yom Kippur, is among the most Kafkaesque stories in the ancient canon. Of course, Kafka never really got around to the Yom Kippur themes of forgiveness and healing. Perhaps this was because poor Franz was stricken by tuberculosis at age 40.
2) Nemeses: Short Novels by Philip Roth
Forget Portnoy’s Complaint, old man Roth is on a roll. From his prophetic mountaintop, somewhere in the wilderness of New England, he is set to deliver his latest testament. Next month we will witness the release of Nemesis, the final annual installment of Roth’s quartet, now known collectively as Nemeses: Short Novels. The intimate knowledge of death hangs heavily in these stories and afflicts both the righteous and the wicked in equal proportion. Any one of these slim books— Everyman, Indignation, or The Humbling—makes for great Yom Kippur reading. Start now and you’ll be in excellent condition next month to read the soul-crushing Nemesis, in which Roth unleashes a polio epidemic on his old neighborhood.
3) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
If you’re looking for something Yom Kippur-appropriate but less diabolical than Kafka or Roth, you’ll have to go to the heartland. Gilead, the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner, is a novel written in the form of a letter from a dying father, a preacher in Iowa, to his young son (an interesting companion read to Kafka’s dismal Letter to His Father). In beautiful, understated prose, Robinson manages to make godliness as plausible and personal as it is to her narrator. Be warned: This book might leave you wanting to pray, like for real.
If Yom Kippur’s not your thing, here are a couple of books that are good antidotes.
1) The World’s Finest Chicken: Over 100 Authentic Dishes From Around the World by Sonia Slyer and Janice Metcalfe
Is there any possible justification for the recreational reading of a cookbook in the middle of Yom Kippur services? No, there isn’t. And yet this is the one book you really want to read during a fast day. So start the year off right and go for it. Read the recipes and the stupid little anecdotes. Imagine pulling that pollo alla Romana out of the oven. Let that aromatic blend of fresh garlic and basil tickle your nose. And yes, go ahead, squeeze an invisible lemon over the pollo before you take an imaginary bite. Before you know it, the service will be over.
2) Dreaming of Hitler: Passions and Provocations by Daphne Merkin
Daphne Merkin is exactly the kind of person you want sitting next to you in synagogue. She’s knows just when to lean over and whisper that crucial mischievous comment into your ear. In this collection of essays, start with section one, “Spanking and Other Sexual Detours.” Make a quick stop for “The Shoplifter’s High.” When you begin to feel some pangs of conscience, flip ahead to the last section, “In My Tribe,” her musings on random Jewish topics. While much of this material is safely deadpan, or just downright clinical, please note the presence of some dangerous laugh-lines. Her description, for example, of a psychiatrist who practiced “play therapy.” Merkin recalls the “frenzied beating-up of dolls in her office.”
3) God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens
It’s true, the grumpiness signaled in the title occasionally bubbles up in this book. But most of the time, Hitchens’ high-spirited tirades make for great reading. If you’ve got spiritual leanings, you’ll enjoy how often Hitchens hinders his case with his obtuseness. And if you’re a skeptic, you’ll enjoy some of his more boozy formulations. “Monotheistic religion,” he writes, “is a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few nonevents.” Sit back in your synagogue seat, enjoy the assault on religion and, before you know it, you’ll find yourself at the brink of that ageless truce between belief and skepticism which goes by the name “the break fast” and usually takes the form of a bagel with lox. Surely, there’s no illusion in that? So read up and have a good Yom Kippur. Let us pray the 5770s are less of a drag than the 1970s.
Avi Steinberg was born in Jerusalem and raised in Cleveland and Boston. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the New York Review of Books, Salon, and other publications. His forthcoming book, Running the Books is out in November.