Braided candle lit, in a glass

The Non-Meditative Jew Tries a Havdalah Meditation

Last night I went to a Havdalah meditation.


I arrived damp from the second cold rain of the season, after going to the wrong location first.

All of these lovely people sat in a circle, looking more beautiful than I had remembered. I stood at the door, letting the cold air in, struggling with my facemask. The group was sharing ways of marking this time as we approach the days of awe. Telling us of these lovely things they do to mark this time of year when we approach the end of the Torah and prepare to roll it back to the beginning, which you would think would mark the head of the year, but doesn’t.

10 days of questioning, letters written between generations, meditations, dreams of voice and stillness.  The meeting of the final letter of the Torah, ל with the first letter, ב, to make the word לב, the Hebrew word for heart.

And I wondered what I do to mark this season.

What is my beautiful practice? What is my transcendent emotional state? I didn’t know.

It turns out that I have no special practice other than longing for ancestors to annoy and family to encircle.

I was born on Yom Kippur, two years after the death of the grand matriarch Esther Toba, who brought her beautiful children from a village in Poland so small that the ship that they boarded to take them to North America was larger.

Imagine, a shtetl smaller than an ocean liner. No wonder people broke down with awe when they caught their first glimpse of it.

And 19 years before I was born, when the Jewish and Gregorian calendars sync up, more than 33,000 Jews were massacred on the outskirts of Kyiv.

I wonder what the Kabbalists have to say about the number 19? 18+1?

As I sat cross-legged, trying to get lost in the moment, I realized something about myself. I am not the Jew who sits in a circle giving you beautiful tradition because I am angry and grieving and whiny.

This time of year reminds me of violence and death, and yes, of course, birth. Most of all, it reminds me of how existentially furious I am with Gd. It reminds me of massacres and despair. It reminds me of betrayal. It reminds me of my beloved grandfather who died a week after Simchat Torah, a week after my luminous Bat Mitzvah, where I read directly from the Torah scroll and led the entire service in the basement of repurposed bank.

And then I remember that I am angry because I love so much.

And how being Jewish is wrapped up in these people I met and did not meet, that I loved and that I didn’t even know. That I will always be walking to my death with the Jews of Kyiv and always be celebrating the survival of my glorious ancestors – the beloved, loving, bitter, charismatic, deep voiced, many. The generous imperfect mess of them.

This is my tradition. What I pass on. It’s not beautiful. It’s not neat. It’s not transcendent.