Dani Shapiro
September 23, 2015

On Atonement

I’m writing this at four o’clock in the afternoon on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. I am stirred, always, by the Day of Atonement. I light memorial candles for my parents, twin flames that burn side-by-side for twenty-four hours on my kitchen counter. When I light those candles, I think of my own parents lighting candles for their dead parents. I remember seeing those flickering flames as a child, and imagining the lives of those who came before me. Lives I couldn’t touch. Lives I would never know. Grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents. There is something enormously powerful in being part of a generational chain, and the holidays bring up that feeling within me. It is at once painful (so much lost!) and bracingly beautiful to consider. I am only the most recent link on a chain that extends back and back.


Living in the country, as I do, it would be easy to skip the holiday. There have been years when I have attempted to ignore the whole thing. After all, I no longer live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, or in Brooklyn, where it would be impossible to walk out my front door without being confronted with the holiness of the day in the form of people in their finery walking to or from synagogue. I didn’t go to synagogue today. Where I live – as I have written about extensively – I have never been able to find a spiritual home. But it has turned out that the lack of that spiritual home inspired me build me own. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, time is our cathedral.

I found myself thinking today, as my husband and I took a long walk, that even though it stirs me, in many ways the Day of Atonement doesn’t feel all that different to me than any other day. I lead an inward life. I spend my days alone with my thoughts, searching for words, reaching for ideas. In my study, I am surrounded by photographs of my ancestors, but even if they weren’t looking down at me from the walls where they hang, I would still know that they surround me. My writing brings them closer to me, and me to them. And so I remember, today, as I attempt to remember every day, that I am part of a vast tapestry. That I didn’t get here on my own. And that, if I close my eyes, I can hear the holy sound of the shofar blowing in every synagogue, every corner of the globe.