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Feeling bad again? Have a Yom Kippur Lite

HOW ARE YOU feeling now? Cleansed? Relieved? Filled with new resolve? Somehow mysteriously lightened of the burden of the awful life you live?

No? Really? So you are still stumbling around in the same old benighted stew of guilt, your entire life - work, relationships, inner thoughts - predicated upon your awareness of failure? Such a shame, and your own fault entirely for not being Jewish. Would I lie?

Last Wednesday, you see, was Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement. Jews know about Yom Kippur. Jews say: "I won't be at work tomorrow; it's Yom Kippur." Jews say: "What do you mean, come round and play Evil Doctor and Nurse Baby-Doll tonight? Don't you know it's Yom Kippur? And anyway, don't call me at home." Jews say: "Yom Kippur? Merely an epiphenomenon of what is essentially a cultural construct but don't tell my mother I said so or she'll kill me." Jews say: "Was it? Oh no! I forgot! You should have reminded me!" Jews say: "Well, funny how some of us manage to remember, maybe we don't have such busy and overwhelming lives as Mister Big Shot here."

And everyone else says: "Yom Kippur? Oh, really?" and assume it's something to do with Magic Food, because that's what religion is about these days, except in America, where it's still like the old days, all about seeing angels and shooting people in the head for saying "You did not so see an angel." And everyone knows that Jewish Magic Food is much the most elaborate, being based on a system which can be summed up as dividing food into four main categories, ie, "Don't eat that, it's dirt", "Don't eat that, you don't know where it has been", "Don't eat that, it's not kosher", and "What do you mean, you don't like it, your mother slaved over a hot stove for hours, you're not too big to go over my knee, Mister Big Shot".

Yom Kippur is not about Magic Food. Yom Kippur is about atonement, about coming to terms with one's defalcations and inadequacies as a human being, about seeking forgiveness and about granting it when it is sought. In short, Yom Kippur is the obvious ceremony for our times. We have just witnessed the most powerful man in the world being pillored for being human and fallible and telling lies. We tune in in our millions to the abominable, baroque breast-beatings of Oprah and The Jerry Springer Show to watch people putting themselves in the pillory for being human and fallible and turning into people of the opposite sex, or eating dawgs, or being monstrously fat or gay or incestuous or nasty or venal or deceitful or grandiose or sad or incompetent or just for not doing very well in one way or another.

Governments make foolish apologies to each other for things their predecessors did or didn't do. Religious leaders apologize to other religious leaders for saying that the other religious leaders' religions were silly or horrible or just plain wrong. Every day, we are all encouraged to feel bad about something: smoking, not walking enough, using our car, spoiling the ozone layer, wearing noisy perfume, being nasty to women, being nasty to men, caring for our household pets, not being sufficiently integrated personalities, despoiling Third World countries in the name of Profit, being culturally smug, marginalising black people just because they are black, shouting at white people just because they are white, not working hard enough, working too hard, eating too much meat, believing too much in science, not believing in science, clinging to the old ways and failing to be a young, modern nation, forgetting the old ways entirely and losing our sense of cultural racination - in short, being rotters.

Hence Oprah. Hence The Jerry Springer Show. Hence the Starr Report. We are all being made to feel so awful, all of the time, that our only relief is to find someone who either is, or is at least prepared to claim to be, so much more awful than we are ("He wanked! On her dress!") that we seem, if not okay, at least just about tolerable in comparison.

So what I suggest is Yom Kippur Lite. You don't need to swallow all the God stuff, or go to the synagogue. You don't even need to actually pray, and you certainly don't have to learn Hebrew. Instead, we set aside a day each year - 30 September has a nice, hopeless, cusp-of-the-declining-season feel about it - on which everyone in the whole world can beat their breasts and moan to each other about how bad they are, and weep and apologise and go down on their knees.

Banks can ring up their customers and apologise for overcharging, for screwing up direct debits, and making sure that the cashpoint machine always goes on the blink at 02:15 on Sunday morning when everyone's trying to get home. Doctors can apologize for taking the wrong leg off or for missing your horrible tumour when it was still treatable, and now you're going to die. Shop assistants can accuse themselves of being arrogant and tetchy; lawyers can rend their garments for their pompous venality, and for being bad in bed. Journalists can smite themselves for their stupidity and scaremongering; television personalities for their impenetrable self- regard; Mr Pulvertaft down the road can excoriate himself for doing the bare minimum, not to mention that incident with Mr Klarfeldt's temp, and Mrs Pulvertaft can bow her head about all those times on the path behind the tennis club with Dennis from the Council road maintenance depot, not to mention Dennis's friends, all of whom liked her little white tennis skirt which is more than Mr Pulvertaft ever did, but all the same it simply will not do.

You can see the attraction: everyone in a state of complete abject self- mortification for one whole guttering day. The earth noisy with sobs and the sound of rending lapels, awash with tears, wide-eyed and reconciliatory. And then the deep endorphin sleep, and no mention of it for another year. I think it is a brilliant notion, and I hope to introduce it in a special Wailing Room at the Millennium Dome, sponsored, of course, by Kleenex. !