On Apples and Atonement
Yom Kippur this year didn't feel particularly different than any other Yom Kippur I've experienced. Which is strange, because almost everything in the past eight months has been completely different from anything anyone's ever experienced. But on Yom Kippur I fasted. I went to Synagogue. I saw my friends, drank juice after break fast. It all felt pretty normal.
Sure, I did it with a face mask. Services were broken into slots of 50 people, so at certain times I was in the main shul, and certain times I was in the banquet hall next door. That's fine, I'm adaptable. If anything, Yom Kippur might have been the most normal thing I've done in while. It was quite refreshing.
Back in July I met a woman named Netti. She came to stay on the farm in Dalmally. Even though Netti is only a few decades older than myself, our life experiences are vastly different. She grew up in East Berlin. She would tell me stories about growing up on the other side of the wall, how they didn't have a fridge or a bathtub in the house, and how her mother grew their vegetables in the yard. After she finished school, she did an apprenticeship as a tailoress, before moving to Scotland to make art.
Netti speaks of sewing as a language. She says when she came to Scotland from Germany, she couldn't speak English, but she connected to people through her sewing. She worked her way around Scotland, from Edinburgh to Caithness to Shetland, teaching felting to primary schoolers. She says that wherever she went she took her thimble and her good fabric scissors, and made a space for herself using what she knew.
Eventually she landed in Newburgh, a tiny town (practically a village, although the locals will deny it) right at the far North-Eastern tip of Fife. In fact, from the steps of Netti's home, you can almost see the sign reading 'Welcome to Fife', rising out of the rolling hills of Perthshire.
Fife is a strange chunk of Scotland. Separated from the rest of the country by the Firth of Forth to the South and the Firth of Tay to the North, in some ways it feels quite English, with quaint country cottages set amidst rolling hills. But Fife is also an ancient kingdom, home of the Picts, one of the tribes that pre-date Scotland and were later united.
The Fife Coastal Path runs 166 miles along the coast of Fife, from Kincardine in the South to Newburgh in North. It takes in the sandy beaches of Elie, the quaint fishing harbours of East Neuk, the ruined cathedral of St. Andrews and the rolling hills around the Forth of Tay, before finishing up in a dingy little park across the road from Netti's back door.
Back in February, a trip to East Neuk and hiking between St. Monan's and Crail on the Fife Coastal Path was my last real vacation before lockdown hit. Since then, I've walked the stretch East out of Newburgh several times, through the sheep and cattle fields rising high above the Tay.
It's a very British thing, walking. In Canada we would call it hiking, although that usually implies some sort of mountains. In India we called it trekking. Here it's walking, even when it's up a mountain. Scotland is full of long-distance walking paths, each dividing a stretch of path into week-long journeys over the land. There's the West Highland Way, from Glasgow to Fort William, and the Great Glen Way, stretching up to Inverness. There are lesser known ones, like the the Southern Upland Way, stretching all across the country from the West to the East. And of course, there's the Fife Coastal Path.
Right at the end of the Fife Coastal Path, some 100 metres before you reach the end, you pass a nondescript brick shack. Inside sits Jimmy, sitting at his loom, weaving tweeds. Originally from South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, Jimmy now runs a weaving studio out of the shed in his yard.
The fabrics he weaves are beautiful. He incorporates traditional Scottish striping patterns in a twill weave, bringing in beautiful local wools. He sits in his shed, creating masterpieces at his wooden loom. Walking through his studio feels like you've entered another world, a small piece of the Hebrides transferred to a fairytale shed in a fairytale town.
One of the things that's so lovely about Scotland is the abundance of local materials. Jimmy uses Shetland wool, from Shetland. Netti uses found fabrics that are donated to her studio. She has beautiful lengths of lace and trimmings, all with their own stories to tell. I read a book about a weaver named Angus McPhee, coincidentally also from South Uist, who would make detailed sculptures and fabrics out of the local Marram grass, continuing on in the tradition that his people have carried for generations.
These makers are making things out of the objects that surround them, drawing inspiration from their lives and their experiences. Perhaps that's what we're also meant to be doing during these times, drawing inspiration from the things around us and using it to do good. I've been writing a lot, knitting a lot, walking a lot. I've been enjoying the change in pace.
It's an interesting idea, walking. Walking has always been central to the Jewish story. In fact, the Jewish story began by walking, when G-d spoke to Abraham, all those years ago, and said to him:
.לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ
Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
And thus begins the long Jewish walk, from Avraham's home in Ur Kasdim, to Israel, to Egypt, back to Israel (if a slightly out-of-the-way journey), and then into exile (and back to Israel and again into exile). And then they kept walking, to Poland and India and Canada and Scotland, and still keep walking.
Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the Sefat Emet, commented on this text from Genesis in the 19th century:
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ – לעולם צריך להיות מהלך. אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ – תמיד השגה חדשה. לכן נקרא האדם מהלך. שכל העומד בלי התחדשות, מיד הטבע שולט בו
Get you out of your land — a person should always keep walking. To the land that I will show you — always some new attainment. This is why the person is called a walker. Whoever stands still is not renewed, for nature holds him fast.
On Yom Kippur we don't do a lot of walking. We do a lot of standing. In fact, for the whole hour of the ne'ilah service, we stand almost the entire time. After 24 hours of fasting and standing around all day praying, we top it off with another hour of standing there, for the single longest amida prayer of the entire year.
Perhaps Yom Kippur was a little break, a little step back into normality, into what's comfortable (as far as a holiday intentionally made to make us feel uncomfortable can do). Standing in Synagogue, with my gloves and my face mask, is the easy bit. Going out into the world, making hard decisions and coming face to face with the realities of the pandemic seems much more difficult.
In Newburgh the apple harvest was in full swing. The town has its own community orchard, with all sort of different varieties of apples, pears and plums. Netti and I went to the orchard to photograph a series of her handmade hats (she's also a professional milliner [that means hat-maker] and ran a custom hat shop in Perth for many years). We wandered through the trees, playing dress up and tasting the fruits from the trees in between outfits. Netti says the best thing to be in life is eccentric.
Newburgh was a lovely break from the routine of lockdown. We spent afternoons driving through quaint countryside villages and frolicking in the orchard sunshine. We took the apples we harvested and baked them into bread, crumbles and cakes. We ate them plain, and the scent of apples filled the apartment.
At the end of the Yom Kippur services, right when we're almost through with standing, and preparing to walk forward into the coming year, we say a beautiful line (heavily abridged from the Ashkenazi Machzor):
יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶֽיךָ... שֶׁתְּהֵא הַשָּׁנָה הַזֹּאת הַבָּאָה עָלֵֽינוּ... שְׁנַת אֹֽסֶם. שְׁנַת בְּרָכָה... שְׁנַת דָּגָן תִּירוֹשׁ וְיִצְהָר... שְׁנַת חַיִּים טוֹבִים מִלְּפָנֶֽיךָ. שְׁנַת טְלוּלָה וּגְשׁוּמָה אִם שְׁחוּנָה. שְׁנַת יַמְתִּֽיקוּ מְגָדִים אֶת תְּנוּבָתָם.
May it be Your Will... that this year approaching us... be a year... of plenty, a year of blessing... a year of grain, wine and oil... a year of good life, a year of dew and rain, and warmth, a year of deliciously sweet fruits.
We broke the fast in the shul parking lot. Me and my friends drank juice out of water bottles and picked apples off the neighbours tree. It wasn't elaborate, but the evening was crisp, I was with people I care about, and we were eating the freshest of natures delicacies, so what more do we really need?
Maybe that's a good message for the upcoming year. It may be a difficult year, but it will also be a lovely year: full of new friends and meaningful stories, walking and thinking, standing and singing, experiencing new things as they come and making the most of what we have, and hopefully lots of deliciously sweet fruits.
Read about my February 2020 trip to East Neuk, on the South-East coast of Fife here.