The Closer We Are to Cringe

Cringe. When I asked my teenage daughter how she would define it, she replied, without missing a beat: “You saying the word ‘cringe.’”

As a parent of teens, my guiding philosophy is that whatever I say or do will be embarrassing, so I may as well embrace it. This is especially true when it comes to music. I embrace the fact that I sing “Rasputin” while cleaning out the fridge for Passover, and that my internal High Holy Days playlist includes Dar Williams (“Sometimes I see myself fine/sometimes I need a witness/and I like the whole truth/but there are nights I only need forgiveness”—really, it doesn’t get better than that). 

Surprisingly, some of my taste is having a moment, as is evident by the appearance of the Indigo Girls classic, “Closer to Fine,” in the Barbie movie (kids, take note: I restrained from singing along in the theatre just for you). So, I felt very seen by Lydia Polgreen’s recent New York Times article “Why is Everyone Suddenly Listening to a Staple of My Angsty Adolescence?” According to Polgreen, the Indigo Girls are easy to dismiss as cringe, with “a kind of pathetic attachment to hope, to sincerity, to possibility.” But then, she suggests, this is exactly what we need. 

We know we live in challenging times. I’ve been a rabbi for over 20 years now, and preparing sermons every Elul gives me some perspective: we always live in challenging times. There is always a crisis, and the world always feels like it is ending. Still, after a summer of smoke-filled skies, this September feels more apocalyptic than most. What is there for us to say? What is there for us to do? Polgreen writes:

You can respond to these circumstances with fatalistic cynicism. Or you can meet them with a sense of possibility, grounded in reality, loosely tethered to something like hope.

To me, this is what the Indigo Girls are all about. Sincerity coupled with wisdom, which is a recipe for something durable: solidarity. A sense that we are in this together. The Indigo Girls are great. Cringe but true. That’s because the kernel of who we are is cringe. That is what it means to be open to the world. To be open to the possibility of a future different from who you are now. When we are young, we feel that way because we don’t know any better. Eventually you get to a place where you know all the ways it can go wrong and feel open anyway. 

This is the heart of the High Holy Days. Vulnerability and hope. Loving and losing. Showing up, even when it’s hard. Falling down and getting back up, again and again and again.

Rabbi Alan Lew wrote a wonderfully-titled book that I often turn to this time of year, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. One of his key insights is that the High Holy Day season actually begins with the memorializing of the destruction of the Temple on Tisha b’Av and ends with sitting in the sukkah, our temporary home on Sukkot. If we take these days seriously, Lew says we realize that “our heart is always breaking, and the gate is always clanging shut . . . the houses that we live in never afford us real security. Their walls and roofs are never complete—they never really keep us from the world or from harm.” But knowing this is what lets us really live. In Lew’s words, “The illusion of protection falls away, and suddenly we are flush with our life, feeling our life, following our life, doing the dance, one step after another.”

Seriously cringe. But this time of year, I encourage all of us to embrace it. 

The Canadian Jewish community has great strength in tradition. Many people, at least in Montreal where I live, go to the same synagogues their parents were married in and that their grandparents founded. There is a profound beauty in continuity and connection but it sometimes comes with a cost. We don’t always seek out the places that are the best fit for us in terms of community or spirituality; we don’t always go where we can bring our whole selves. Wherever you may be over the High Holy Days, I encourage you to make the experience mean something. Be authentic. Be vulnerable. Embrace the cringe.

Just please don’t show this article to my kids.

Header image design collaged by Orly Zebak. It features the Indigo Girls plucked from moments in the “Closer to Fine” music video and an edited version from the moment Margot Robbie sings their song in Barbie. The latter’s copyright sits with Warner Brothers Entertainment. Inc.

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