A Thought about Yom Kippur

When I worked at the University of Washington, I asked to take Yom Kippur off.

“Will you be going to synagogue?”

“No.”

“Will you be fasting?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.”

“Then why are you taking it off?”

**what?**

I hated that conversation. And I love the fact that I’ve never had to have that conversation in Israel.

I usually go to the Kotel (Western Wall) for Yom Kippur, but I live further away now and it’s probably going to be hot, even in the morning. I don’t know if I want to walk 2 hours round trip to have a few words with God. God is everywhere, right? So I should be able to stay home.

And that is the beauty of living in Israel. No one will question what I choose to do on Yom Kippur and no matter what I do, I don’t feel any less Jewish.

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In the US, there’s a lot of effort that goes into maintaining a connection with Judaism. You have to plan ahead to coordinate holidays; if you want a community, you have to join a synagogue or community center (often paying dues and fees); if you want to be more religious, you have to shop at certain stores, live in certain neighborhoods, reorder your life slightly out of step with the surrounding community. It’s hard.

Here in Israel, I can effortlessly connect to my Jewish heritage. The nation functions on the Jewish calendar, I can walk into any synagogue at any time or never walk into any synagogue ever, I’m in-step with everyone and everything around me. I don’t have to try so hard.

I sound lazy, I’m sure. But it feels to me like my soul is planted in the fertile soil that it needs so that I can grow in other directions.

My dad had a pin that he liked a lot. He probably got it from Chabad. It said: “We never lost it.” I asked him what it meant and he said that we never lost the answers. I was about seven, so it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Now I can see that even if you never lost a thing, sometimes it doesn’t always fit properly. But once it’s in its rightful place, everything else seems to realign itself.

I never lost my Judaism, I just didn’t have a way to make it fit properly for me in the US. Now that I’m in Israel, I feel that everything is in its rightful place no matter what I do on Yom Kippur.

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I’m sorry if my posts offended anyone. I’m sorry that some posts got a bit too long. I’m sorry if I misrepresented something or someone my writing. I hope you can forgive me. I will try to do better next year.

Wishing everyone a Gmar Chatima Tova!
May you be written and sealed in the Book of Life!
May you have a meaningful fast (if you’re fasting)!

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Traditional Yom Kippur posts: 2015 | 2016 | 2017

Yom Kippur – A Crash Course

What is the greeting for Yom Kippur?

The traditional greeting for Yom Kippur, which can be used between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, is Gmar chatima tova.  The words translate to finish, seal, and good.  Chatima is also used in modern Hebrew for a signature.  What people understand when they hear this phrase is “may you be sealed in the Book of Life.”

Yom Kippur sounds pretty serious.  Why is that?

Yom Kippur is the tenth day of the month of Tishrei.  Rosh Hashana, the New Year, is on the first and second of the month.  Between these two holidays Jews are supposed to take a spiritual accounting, a cheshbon nefesh, of their actions in the past year.  During the ten days, you have an opportunity to make things right between yourself and other people.  On Yom Kippur, your actions for the past year are weighed and you have to get square with God.  At the end of the day, your name will be inscribed either in the Book of Life or the Book of Death.

I’ve heard that Kol Nidre is sung to a beautiful and haunting melody.  What does it mean?

Kol nidre means “all promises.”  This haunting, spiritual, moving melody is the tune at the start of the Yom Kippur service that basically uses legal language to nullify all promises made before God.

A cultural aside: Orthodox Jews in Israel often commit to something and follow it up with the phrase bli neder.  This absolves them of the promise that would be among the vows that are cancelled in the Kol Nidre service.

Kol Nidre holds a very interesting place in US movie history.  Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer was one of the first “talkies.”  In the opening scene we are shown a synagogue with everyone preparing for Yom Kippur.  The cantor is saddened that his son did not come to sing Kol Nidre with him and then we hear the voice of Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt singing Kol Nidre.

Here’s a clip of one of the final scenes where Al Jolson himself sings Kol Nidre.

What is Israel like on Yom Kippur?

Quiet.  Even if people don’t do anything for Yom Kippur themselves, they respect the solemnity of the day and don’t drive.  Everything is closed in the Jewish areas.  (I don’t personally know if stores and restaurants are open in the Arab neighborhoods, but I have seen a few cars driving around on Yom Kippur and plenty of tourists in the Old City.)

I have friends that take pictures of themselves sitting in the middle of normally busy highways that on Yom Kippur are totally empty.  Children in Jerusalem ride their bikes in the middle of the street.

Air quality in Israel is measurably improved on Yom Kippur due to the complete shutdown of transportation. Even Israeli air space is closed.

I can’t statistically prove it but it seems to me that no matter how cold it may have been in the days before Yom Kippur, it is always hot on Yom Kippur.  It’s a 25-hour full fast – no eating and no drinking – and it is so much harder to fast when it’s hot.  By 4pm, everyone is listless and even in the synagogues they are counting the minutes until the fast is broken.  It is in these last hours when you feel that your soul is really on trial.

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Let me take this opportunity to apologize for any wrongs I may have committed, or wrong information I may have provided.  I apologize for any offense my blog posts may have caused.  I also want to apologize for writing long posts and not always editing properly.

Gmar Chatima Tova!