a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

What To Expect During the High Holidays

Posted on: September 13, 2012

These “What To Expect” posts are always inspired by people in my life, many who are on the same path I recently completed-converting to Judaism. I was recently asked what the High Holidays were like and was sort of stumped for an answer. I started and re-started this post and as you can see towards the middle, I let someone else answer.

You can read a million books on what to expect at the mikvah, what to expect the first time you enter a synagogue, what to expect at the beit din but they can never really describe the feeling of actually experiencing these things. Of course, the way that I experienced them and continue to experience them year after year, as in the case of High Holidays will continue to change and evolve with time. Though, you always remember your first time and for me it left little to be desired. Search High Holidays on my blog and you’ll see how my first Rosh Hashanah and Kol Nidre services were. I’m happy to report that last year was much better.

Disclaimer:  The following post is based on my personal experience at High Holiday services as well as the experiences of three converts to Reform Judaism.

Basics of the Days of Awe


Elul is the month leading up to the High Holidays. During Elul, it’s customary to reflect, repent, and make amends before the new year. It’s a time to look at the year that has past while also looking towards the future. The month ends with Slichot Service which was on Saturday, September 8th this year.

Rosh Hashanah literally means “head of the year” and is considered to be one of the Jewish New Years. For the two days of Rosh Hashanah no work is permitted and the majority of time is spent in synagogue. It is said that the Book of Life opens on Rosh Hashanah and closes on Yom Kippur. The practice of “casting off” or Tashlikh is observed and you’ll see lots of Jews standing over bridges or near bodies water throwing in pieces of bread.

The shofar is sounded during service and a machzor is used as opposed to the normal siddur

Yom Kippur literally means “Day of Attonment” It is a long day spent in service at synagogue. Jews do not work on Yom Kippur and fasting is customary. Some people wear white and some Ashkenazi Jews wear a kittel, the same garment you are married and buried in. Some people refrain from wearing leather shoes, make-up, and do not shower. Yom Kippur is a more somber service that ends with a slight hopefulness that even as I write gives me chills.

So you have a really basic idea of what the holidays are like on paper, which is great but experiencing High Holidays is completely different.

My friends over at Becoming Jewish asked a few readers to share their first High Holiday experiences. And I’m going to share them with you. If you have any tips or stories you’d like to share about your first High Holiday experience please leave them in the comments.

L’Shana Tovah!

At my first HHD services I was not yet a Jew. After the first year I learned to wear more comfortable shoes and taper off on coffee AHEAD of the fast.

My go-to book for preparing for holidays that were new to me was “The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary,” by Michael Strassfeld.  It is easy to read and has each holiday in a separate chapter. It covers all the practical stuff like – what to do when somebody greets you on the high holy days with a phrase you’ve never heard before and what to say back. (Ya gotta know more than just Shabbat Shalom this time of year or you’ll be tongue-tied when approached.)

I was surprised the first year by the extra choreography some of the men engaged in during the service. I guess they were raised Orthodox, perhaps? I knew to go up on my toes three times when the words Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh were said, and I had the bowing down from practice during regular services, but there was a lot of swaying and other movements that I hadn’t seen before.

I was also very surprised how much yacking went on in the pews among the congregants during the service.  It was like old home week for people who didn’t see each other for a long time – maybe only once a year or less. Services got off to a late start to accommodate the schmoozing.

At the Break the Fast I was surprised by how people didn’t run to the food table at first.  They mobbed the soda table gulping down large glasses of it.

If you’re going to spend all day at services and do the whole thing – Selilchot, Erev Rosh Hashanah, Two days of Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidrei, Yom Kippur (morning, afternoon, Yizkor and concluding services), I recommend really doing some thinking about what you are going to pack in your purse/car ahead of time to make yourself more comfortable.  It can feel like a marathon if you don’t bring along some things you might need when away from home.  Think of it like spending a whole day and evening as a tourist in an unfamiliar city. What would you bring along?

Change of shoes
Throat drops
Snack (obviously not for Yom Kippur)
Cell phone and charger (keep in the car)
Favorite toy/comfort object for your child
Religious garb
Extra sweater
Small hand fan

My best advice for first-timers is, don’t be hard on yourself if you feel overwhelmed. Even after a couple decades it is an overwhelming experience for me some years.  Emotions run high, people feel crowded in a confined space, parking can sometimes be a challenge, relatives who may have “issues” find themselves in close proximity to one another and services are long and you get hungry, you can’t always control the temperature or who sits in front of you or next to you or behind you.  If you have children you are responsible for thinking about what you can realistically manage with them. You may want to “do it all”, but you may be better off picking and choosing only some services to attend. If you have children and a partner, negotiate ahead of time your responsibilities at services with the children. Who leaves with the child if they start fussing, for instance. If you are a single parent, see if you can find another adult to help relieve you if you need a break. Don’t wait to find someone when you walk in the door; find another parent to trade off with or something ahead of time.

Expect to cry. You might. The music and mood can sweep you away. The sound of the shofar, the chanting of Kol Nidrei, the words read and said all elevate the service beyond the norm.

If you have a reluctant partner who doesn’t want to “do it all” with you, let go of your expectations of being together through each and every service.  Newbies are enthusiastic and want to make sure they experience it all, while those not as plugged in or who are veterans may find your enthusiasm grating and take your excitement about going to every service and staying until the very last minute of it as nagging. (I start negotiating with my spouse about attendance a month ahead and we write it on the calendar – which ones they will attend and which ones not – so everybody knows what the other is willing to do.)

The fact that time must be taken from work always becomes an issue with somebody in the family, and as a Jew by Choice I can sometimes get my hackles up when they balk at taking a particular day off and missing a service.

Over the years I have learned I have to let it go.  I can only be responsible for my own attendance and cannot control the rest of my family. 

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