Jews observe their Day of Atonement on Yom Kippur. But when I arrived in New York in late summer 1988, it was just another day to me. (Of course there are Jews in Mississippi, where I grew up, but Judaic culture isn’t as prominent down in the Bible Belt.) I’d only been at my job a month or so, and I was happily typing away when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a couple of people in the hallway, dressed to head out into the unseasonably cool weather. Type, type. Then more of them. My boss even. Type, type… Wow. I’d only just arrived at Warner Books; maybe I literally hadn’t gotten the memo. I shut down, put on my coat, and headed out into the hall, just in time to bump into Larry Kirshbaum, our publisher. “Where are you going, Tom?” Slightly flustered, I said, “I’m going with you!” Whereupon Larry proceeded to laugh, hard, pounding the wall with his fist, much as I did years later when I first saw DUMB AND DUMBER.
Once Larry caught his breath, he explained that Jews must already be wherever they’re going when Yom Kippur begins at sundown. I’ve noticed over the years that not only do “religious” Jews observe this holiest of days, but many “secular” Jews do too (the Christian equivalent is probably Easter Sunday, only no atonement necessary because we’ve never done anything wrong), hence the populous flurry of activity in the hallway. But hey: I’m from the country — that naivete was what Larry enjoyed so much. I was by leaps and bounds the least deserving potential Yom Kippur schlepper in the whole building. Catholics thought it was funny.
Now, whenever anyone asks how a Southerner assimilates in New York City, I mention this incident. Sometimes when I do, it makes me start pounding the wall myself, in laughter and maybe atonement. Naah, just laughter.
Each year, it doesn’t feel right to say “Happy Yom Kippur” to my many Jewish pals. So I go instead with the common greeting that actually means something: have an easy fast, friends.