Talia, Dew of Heaven

Last September, Shabbat fell on the eve of the holiest day of the year, Erev Yom Kippur, and I found myself alone with no Shabbat candles to light. 

My five roommates and I were all newcomers to Tel Aviv—I had been there less than a week. I was preoccupied with getting settled and completely forgot to buy candles. Our kitchen was decorated with modern, sleek, but dingy furnishings. I was shivering from the blasting air conditioning. It wasn’t the best way to welcome Shabbat. 

Thinking I was alone in the apartment I accepted my candle-less fate. Then Talia, one of my roommates, came home panting with a bag of blessed tea lights from the convenience store AM:PM. She presented the tea lights to me like a fresh kill. I peeked out of our kitchen window to find the sun had not yet set. Talia pierced the bag of candles with her acrylic nails and freed two tea lights, one for each of us. Even with our different Jewish backgrounds, we both had the same tradition of lighting just one candle as unmarried women. 

Growing up, it was important for both of us to follow Jewish rituals. Lighting candles every Shabbat, especially on the eve of the holiest day of the year, was crucial. Our backgrounds made our individual Jewish practice slightly different but the core of our religious beliefs were surprisingly similar. As the evening went on, I found out we had more in common. 

Talia grew up in the United States and was raised Ultra-Orthodox. She knew this fact was fascinating and would often announce it like a party trick. She was fun-loving and bubbly, and easily drew attention to herself when she wanted to. Though she was no longer interested in living an Ultra-Orthodox life she still wanted to follow certain Jewish practices, so long as they did not constrict her. And she still held a belief in God, something I took comfort in.  

I was raised Conservative Jewish in Canada and attended Jewish day school as a child. My family would bless challah and wine on Shabbat but did not do much else. I could only sing traditional prayers with the guiding song of a crowd. I said my own unique prayers without melody or words often on my knees by my bed. 

When I was 19 years old I tried to fill in the gaps of my Jewish knowledge by studying mysticism and Talmud. I took it upon myself to learn more about Judaism because I found ritual and Torah sustaining when I was younger. I wanted to keep Judaism in my life. In Tel Aviv I worked for Jewish organizations while studying Yiddish and Hebrew. My life revolved around Judaism. When I felt I needed support, I prayed either scoldingly in request or in gratitude. 

As my relationship with Judaism deepened, my relationship with God also evolved. We are told to fear God several times in the Torah and in traditional prayers. Yet, with my better understanding of Judaism, I had grown into a relationship with God that did not involve threatening judgement but compassion. 

I moved to Tel Aviv from Montreal because of a prayer. After I graduated from university, I wanted to know what to do next, so I asked God. Later in the week, my cousin texted me and said she was going to Tel Aviv for work and suggested I join her. Her program would even find me a job and apartment. It felt like fate. I found my answer. While many would find my belief in divine intervention silly, I knew Talia would not. When I told her, she understood where I was coming from because of our shared faith in God.

Talia’s belief in the divine was solidified based on the miracle-working of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. She said he miraculously healed her from an illness in her infancy. To my surprise, she kept the rebbe’s image in her wallet. 

On Yom Kippur I did not want to go to services because of the pandemic—it was the first time I didn’t attend services—nor did I wish to fast for health reasons. Coincidentally, Talia also could not fast for health reasons that year, but she still tried to. Both of us were in situations in which we were permitted to abstain from fasting under Jewish law. She seemed desperate to fastmaybe she wanted to feel cleansed or connected to her religious past on the holiest day of the year. I was comforted to have a companion who was in the same situation as me: unable to fast, not willing to go to synagogue, and still figuring out how to navigate a modified religious practice. 

Without following the important practice of fasting or attending services, I wasn’t sure what Yom Kippur meant anymore. I turned to Talia for an answer. She told me Yom Kippur was about God judging us. If his judgement was negative we would be killed. 

I responded by sharing a parable my Jewish school teacher taught my class on teshuva (atonement). In the parable there was a boy who always pulled a girl’s braids. The boy heard Yom Kippur was coming and decided to do teshuva as his rabbi had told him. He apologized to the girl and she accepted; the next day he pulled her braids again. My teacher told us the boy had not appreciated the meaning of Yom Kippur since he apologized only to return to his bad behaviour. His apology was dictated but the gesture was empty and therefore, null. 

This is the only story I connect to Yom Kippur despite knowing about The Book of Life and the threat of being “murdered by God,” as Talia put it. While fasting is an important part of the holiday, it feels like an empty gesture if only inspired by the fear of God’s judgement. Instead, asking for forgiveness and changing one’s ways to grow into a better version of oneself is a sincere gesture. The act transcends religious practice.

I respected Talia’s feelings were shaped by her upbringing but I did not want her to fear God’s judgement. For a holiday centred on good will it didn’t seem fitting. I wanted her to understand the weight that is lifted from one’s shoulders when one can forgive themselves or others for past behaviours.  

However, the holiday in Tel Aviv was a negative experience for her. She couldn’t fast and therefore couldn’t be purified. Moreover, she was living a life that went completely against everything she grew up being taught, with no intention to change. 

I eased my guilt over not fasting by reciting, “Bless her with the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth,” a verse from a Techine (a Yiddish women’s prayer book). The image of thick oil and glistening dew acted as a salve for me. The prayer evoked hope and celebrated being able to eat and drink what the earth gives us. Even on Yom Kippur, a day where customarily one would not enjoy the dew of heaven (drink water) or the fat of the earth (eat food), I could feel grateful for these things. When I asked Talia if she heard this prayer before, she laughed in dismissal and said no. 

A few days after Yom Kippur, I went to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art for the first time. The painting Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur by Maurycy Gottlieb was one of the last works I visited. Seeing countless prints of it was nothing compared to the glorious original. The furs draped over the Jewish women’s jackets and the furs that circled men’s hats seemed freshly plucked. While the men’s gallery was full of desperate petitioning under silver shimmering kippot and Torah covers, the women’s gallery shimmered equally with head coverings. The silver shone so much in places I mistook the glint for fossilized morning dew. At that moment I remembered what Talia’s name meant: dew of heaven. 

The prayer that offered comfort and healing during a time of Jewish self-discovery and personal practice characterized the person who I went on this journey with. Except I could do nothing more than find humour in the irony that she couldn’t see what was in the dew; her name.

Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Can’t get enough? Subscribe!