David Greenberg,

David Greenberg,

A weeklong electronic journal.
Oct. 1 1998 3:30 AM

David Greenberg,

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       It's Yom Kippur. I never know what to say to other Jews on Yom Kippur. You can't say, "Happy Yom Kippur," since it's the most somber day of the year. "I'm sorry"? (I know someone is bound to take offense at this. I'm sorry.)
       Whether to work on the High Holy Days poses a perennial conundrum. Several years ago, I started a job as managing editor of The New Republic. I had been away all August and before departing had agreed I'd start work the day after Labor Day. Turned out that was Rosh Hashana. I went to work anyway, not wanting to look delinquent my first day on the job.
       The office was deserted. Not only were Wieseltier, Rosen, et al., absent, but so were the "stealth" Jews with such names as Shipley, Kosova, and Lane. Even Andrew Sullivan, the Catholic editor, was nowhere to be seen. As I was sitting in my new office, trying to figure out something to do, the phone rang. It was Marty Peretz, the editor in chief, calling from Boston. He warmly welcomed me back to the magazine (I had worked there just out of college), then asked what I was doing there on Rosh Hashana. Sandy Koufax refused to pitch on the High Holy Days, he reminded me, and then he told me to go home.
       Now, if I were going to services, I'd have no qualms about taking off work. But I haven't gone to services in years. I hated going to services as a kid and just can't bring myself to go anymore. If I'm ever called upon to do more in the way of Jewish ritual, I'd willingly take up any number of observances--abstaining from pork, studying the Talmud, strapping tefillin on my arms or binding them upon my doorstop or doorstep or between the whites of my neighbor's eyes, or whatever the biblical injunction is. But services--no way, man.
       With services out of the question, I feel guilty about just loafing. It's just like this Philip Roth story that's in the Goodbye, Columbus collection. I can't find the book just now, because when I moved recently I foolishly put most of my already-read fiction in storage. But as I recall, Roth writes about some Jews in an Army unit who prey on their sergeant's sympathies to get a leave for the Jewish holidays. I think in the end they secretly go out for Chinese food. You get the point.
       One final wrinkle to all this: It is true that I also feel guilty on Yom Kippur when I go outside and see swarms of Jews in their Saturday best and I've been working away all day. Bottom line is, however, I think I would feel more guilty about not working than about working. So I worked.
       Measuring rival activities for their relative guilt quotient is a favorite pastime of mine--and, come to think of it, perhaps an honorable way to be spending this holiday.