When I was a child, I loved going to Yom Kippur services at our synagogue for one very specific reason: I got to sit next to my father for an entire day.
I was minimally interested in the service itself. Rather, I relished the experience of being close to him all day long, running my fingers through his tzitzit (the strings on the corners of a Jewish prayer shawl), twisting them into braids. Just before the service started, he would lean over to me in the pew beside him and, as we are instructed to do on Yom Kippur, ask for my forgiveness: "Gab, if I have done anything in the past year to hurt you, I am sorry. I hope you can forgive me."
"I forgive you, Daddy. Do you forgive me?" I'd ask, breathing in his freshly-shaven cheeks, scented with aftershave I bought him for Father's Day at Bath and Body Works.
"Of course I do, sweetie."
In that moment, everything would be right in the world. And there would be no place else I'd want to be. For me, he was the conduit of an entire religion, culture and people. Sitting next to him in his just-pressed suit, listening to his recitation of the prayers, using the Ashkenazi pronunciation of Adonoy instead of Adonai (meaning God), just as his own father had, was the closest to God I had ever felt.
Until I was twenty-nine, it was the only place I wanted to be for Yom Kippur.
Almost three years ago, I fell in love with a man who also attends Yom Kippur services. In fact, he attends services, colloquially known as shul, nearly every week. In our first year together, I felt ready to be with him for High Holy Day services, here in San Francisco at his progressive but traditional shul, instead of with my family at their Reform temple, an hour outside the city.
In lieu of a traditional mechitza (a curtain separating men and women during prayer), my boyfriend's shul has a men's section, a women's section and a mixed middle section. He is a longtime davener (pray-er) in the men's section, and so I found a seat for myself in the mixed section. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the service, and by how good it felt to pray surrounded by people I knew and liked. What I wasn't prepared for was how much it made my heart ache to spend a whole day in synagogue without my father by my side.
Yet, tomorrow evening begins the third Yom Kippur since we began dating, and I will continue to attend shul in San Francisco with my boyfriend, where the services are nice but still not entirely comfortable for me, instead of at my hometown synagogue, where I know all of the prayer melodies, the Hebrew is transliterated, and I can sit with my family, next to my father, as I did for so many years. But despite my longing for my family, our San Francisco shul is where I want to be.
And with each year, it's gotten a little bit easier. The prayers have become more familiar; I love the collective, inviting spirit of the community. I have found friends and a place for myself within it. And on Yom Kippur, in the early evening, when I start to get bored or tired, or too hungry to focus on the service, I'll slip out for a few minutes, walk down the block and call my parents to wish them a gut yontif (good holiday).
When my dad gets on the phone, he'll tell me, as he always has, "Gab, if I have done anything in the past year to hurt you, I am sorry. I hope you can forgive me."
And, just for a moment, it will be as if he is right beside me in a pew, smelling of Bath and Body Works cologne and toothpaste, with his arm around me.
Of course I'll forgive him. And I'll hope he can forgive me, too.