A New Englishman In New York Part 17: Yom Kippur And Dinosaur BBQ

Our lone Englishman in the Big Apple attends an awkward religious ceremony and unwillingly talks to an ignorant middle aged British man in a lift...
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It is Yom Kippur. I am not Jewish. The fiancée is. We have agreed to go to ‘Services” for the Jewish New Year.

I’m reluctant to attend, I’m one of them Atheists, yer know, the ones who go to Hell.

So we strike a deal, if I go to this then she will take me to my place of worship; Dinosaur BBQ in Harlem. We shake on it. (We actually do a pinky promise, but “shake on it” suggests I still have some self dignity intact) I put on my cleanest clothes and head out the door.

The service is in a hotel opposite Central Park. We arrive at the place, see our friend that we are meeting, and walk up to her.

“Hello, Thomas.” She says.

I say hello.

“Take this, and go in there.” She says.

She hands me a Yakama, the skull cap, and points me in the direction of a sign saying “Men”. I look over at the male door, turn back around and see the two of them walking into the woman’s part. Abandoned. I am alone. Confused. Holding a Yakama.

What happens now? Do I take a book? Do I do a runner? This is all too much for me. I’m panicked. I have no idea what is behind this door. I mean, I know there will be a lot of Jews in a room, that much is clear. I just have no idea what it will look like, or how long it will last, or what I’m supposed to be doing.

I pop on the Yakama. It covers the only area of my head that still has hair. Demoralising. Perhaps I could double up and put one on the front as well? Too weird. I walk around for a bit. Take a deep breath. Think about the chicken wings at Dinosaur BBQ and head in.

Well, I’m in the right place. This is definitely an orthodox Jewish service. I walk over to the Men’s section. I’m not sure what to do. Every man is wearing a prayer shawl. I’m not. I only have a skull cap and shiny forehead. Some people are stood up, some sat down. I’m clearly a fraud. I don’t know what to do. They never covered this in R.E at school. A young man looks over and gestures for me to sit down. I think he is our friend’s brother, this is better, I smile and go over.

He kindly pulls a chair out for me. I sit down.

“Alright mate?” I say. A completely inappropriate greeting for the grand religious setting.

He puts his hand on my back and says something in Hebrew to me. I then realize. He’s not her brother. I’ve never met him before in my life.

I panic.

“I don’t know. Sorry.” I say.

He repeats what he said before, again in Hebrew.

“I…I don’t.... um…. sorry.” I say.

He repeats again. The third time. Maybe this is part of a ritual.

“I’m really sorry.” I say.

He looks slightly annoyed and says “Do you need a book?”

“Oh, umm, yes.” I say.

He hands me a book.

The service goes on for about 2 and a half hours. I try to follow using the English translation in the book, but I’m not sure what is going on. I stand up now and then. Do a bit of pacing when other people do. Beat my heart with my hand. I’m an idiot abroad. It’s worth noting just how eager I am to betray my nonbeliever values in order to fit in socially. It’s a lot easier to be a cocky atheist when sat at home watching Christopher Hitchens debate southern Baptists on YouTube.

I look over the hedge that they have set up between the men and the women to see the fiancée madly grinning at me. I’ve never seen her so proud. It finally ends and thus puts about a years distance until I have to go again.

Over a month later and I still haven’t been taken to eat wings. No wonder I don’t believe in anything.

I have no idea what is behind this door. I mean, I know there will be a lot of Jews in a room, that much is clear. I just have no idea what it will look like, or how long it will last, or what I’m supposed to be doing.


It’s the time of the day when I have to leave work to go to a class at University. It’s raining outside. At 27 years old I should be long done with education and I should own an umbrella. I fall behind on both. I have no money on my Metro Card, no cash in my pocket and my banks cards are frozen due to some suspected identity theft.

I have a 20 block/street walk in the pouring rain ahead of me, followed by having to watch a clever person click through a PowerPoint presentation for three hours. I leave the office and walk towards the lifts. Press the button. Wait. Scanning the 3 available doors.

The door opens. A man is stood there. He isn’t getting out.

“I got in the wrong lift.” He says

I nod. Walk in.

He’s British. Middle aged. The man turns to me and inquires: “What happens on this floor then?”

I tell him, and then ask him what floor he is on. This is way beyond how much I ever wish to speak to anyone, let alone a stranger.

“17th. been here three weeks now. It’s great isn’t it New York?” He says.

“Yeah. It’s alright yeah.” I say.

“Very friendly. No one has stabbed me yet.” He says.

I nod and say “Yeah. It’s…um… a lot safer nowadays.”

Then out of nowhere he says:

“Well, it took two planes to do that.”

Oh God. We have barely hit single digits in the lift and he has produced a 9/11 gag. He doesn’t know me. This is mad.

I keep silent. This is some sort of Green Card test surely? He is a plant. Part of the Patriot Act. One giggle at this and I’m out. The guy has sensed the silence.

“Probably shouldn’t joke about that ay?” He says.

“Yeah, especially in New York.” I say.

“Oops.” He says. “Must remember that.”

Door opens. He walks off, grinning. He won’t remember that.

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