So I picked up another CD from the cantor and began to learn the Torah service. It was short and not difficult, and I ceased panicking. It's usually done by the person leading Musaf, the long afternoon service that immediately follows; I wondered why that wasn't the case this time.
Meanwhile, I was struggling a bit obsessively with another issue: what to wear. I'm not a clothes horse, although I used to care a lot more about that stuff during the days when I worked in an actual office with other self-described hip, cool design industry people. Those outfits are long gone, replaced, now that I sit from dawn to dusk at a little desk in the corner of my kitchen, by sweatpants with holes in embarrassing places. But I wanted to look nice for those thousand people. I could wear anything, really--at my synagogue there are as many levels of individuality in attire as in opinion. Nor, in a shocking departure from the culture of most congregations, does anyone care about what you spent on your shoes. In any case, not much of me would be visible; my shoulders would be covered with a tallit, and everything below hidden behind the bima.
But one of the remnants of my childhood brand of Judaism was the injunction to dress up on holidays. Not the fashion show kind of dressy, but the "hiddur mitzvah" sort--clothing to beautify the day, and honor those in front of whom I would stand. I also noticed that everyone who led services followed the custom of wearing white on Yom Kippur, which I did when I sang with the choir a few years back. Since I'm a New Yorker and 98% of my wardrobe is black, as is our particular custom, this presented a practical as well as ideological challenge.
If I were to take that sartorial leap, I wanted the white to be meaningful. No polyester; I would try to find "eco-kosher" materials, less likely to have harmed the environment or caused grief to people in foreign sweatshops. Because white was not in style or stores last summer (unlike this year, when we seem to be re-living the 70s and the city is full of tiny tank tops paired with flowing peasant skirts), I scoured the Internet, Googling "white clothing" and "natural" for hours at a time. The rabbis wore kittels on Yom Kippur, simple white garments that evoke burial shrouds and remind us of our mortality and humility. (The custom hasn't caught on with many women, maybe because kittels look like ugly bathrobes.) I also grew up wearing, for those same reasons, non-leather shoes on the High Holidays. For my father and most men, this meant canvas Keds more appropriate to the proprietor of a Good Humor truck.