Tom Kippur

A yummy Break Fast that you can prep ahead of time for Yom Kippur. From Bon Appetit.

A yummy Break Fast that you can prep ahead of time for Yom Kippur. From Bon Appetit.

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 new job a month or so, and I was happily typing away one afternoon 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.

4 Responses to Tom Kippur

  1. On a more secular, but similar, note: during a Mississippi exile spent at Texas Monthly, I blithely admired the blue flowers on display in the women’s bathroom. The ensuing laughter could be heard all the way from the 16th floor of our building to Congress Ave. They were, of course, bluebonnets.

  2. Dan Moran says:

    New York is treacherous for foreigners. I was in my early 30s when I moved there in the mid 90s — not long after the Northridge Earthquake in L.A. My actual getting-off-the-train moment involved standing on Sixth Avenue … feeling the ground move … and wondering why the hell I was the only one bothered by the fucking *earthquake* …

    Of course it was the subway.

    Some months later, I left home to go somewhere or other — cold, nippy day — and there was a goddamn CHEMICAL SPILL in the middle of the road. A big white smear of crap all over the place. I walked around it, kicked at it, wondered why I was the only one taking note of it …

    Of course it was ice. I hurried away once I clued in, just another New Yorker briefly fascinated by the ice….

  3. Virginia Rogers says:

    Years ago, I was in NYC, and stopped in a store to buy some mints. The guy behind the counter asked, “where are you FROM?” I realized it was a comment about my accent, so, in as many syllables as I could muster, I said “Mississippi.” Thing is, he was Middle Eastern! But apparently I was more the foreigner in that setting! It made me laugh!

    I love reading your article every year!

  4. Photograham says:

    Rural South Mississippi does not have many more Catholics than Jews. My first Good Friday in LA I told a lady in our office that she had a smudge on her forehead. She prayed for me.

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