What to think about on Yom Kippur
How can our children continue to live as Jewish citizens of the globalized world?
This is the first time in 32 years that I will be outside Israel on Yom Kippur. I have just vague memories of the last time I spent the holiest of days in a foreign country - I was seven and the only scene that remains in my mind is leaving the synagogue in the middle of the service, walking home with my mother and younger siblings for a quiet and short lunch. The soundtrack to that memory is silent - we lived in a predominantly Jewish suburb and the house as we entered was eerily still.
Thinking about Yom Kippur this year, which I will spend for the first time in the center of a large city that never sleeps, I realized how silence is my overwhelming experience of the Day of Atonement. If you have ever spent Yom Kippur in Israel, you will be familiar with the way around half an hour before sundown, the urban volume is slowly turned down until a blanket of quiet has smothered every sound of industrial life. No television or radio within the apartment and the road outside emptied of cars and buses for 25 hours.
Until five years ago, I measured Yom Kippur by the lengthy periods of time spent at prayer, the page numbers on the machzor and the contraction of my stomach as the physical effects of fasting set in. Some years, on average perhaps one in three, I succeeded in feeling a gradual spiritual lightening as the solemnity, liturgy and light-headedness of hunger raised me to a higher level of consciousness.
For the last five years though, since I ceased to fast and found myself unmoved by prayer, except when occasionally roused by a particular niggun or the resonance and beauty of religious poetry, the main thing has been the silence. Behind closed doors I could have gone online, watched a DVD or just curled up with a book, but it seemed churlish and wrong. An entire economy had ground to a standstill to allow me a night and day of retrospection. I didn't observe the fast by any rabbinical standard, eating, drinking and smoking continued normally, but it was a day of silent contemplation, a reckoning of misdeeds from the past year and resolutions for the next. The national hiatus demanded this would be a day like no other - an emotional stock-taking.
Last year I lived in Lod, to my mind the only truly "mixed" town in Israel. On Yom Kippur morning I walked the length and breadth of its empty streets. There were no cars or open shops even in the Arab neighborhoods. "It's good to have a day of silence," one man said to me. I walked home thinking how to articulate what a Jewish state could offer all its citizens.
This year I am on my own. Outside the comforting and suffocating embrace. Not that there is a shortage of shuls in London, of every hue and color. My girlfriend is taking our baby son to a "grassroots" congregation where she has had meaningful experiences in previous years, but I can't bring myself to go, though I wish I could. The official reason is that I am not a fan of the Carlebach style of their services, which is true but this is a lame excuse.
The truth is that I'm scared of nostalgia, afraid of rekindling a yearning I have convinced myself is artificial, afraid of discovering the spiritual inadequacy of the secular cultural Jewish identity I have constructed within myself. I'm a recovering addict of religious ecstasy and I know that if I allow myself to be swept away once again, all will come crashing down as I emerge back into the busy weekday street.
Most of the time I feel greatly superior to other Jews, religious and non-observant, Israelis and foreigners alike. I have lived on both sides of the spiritual and geographic borders, and see myself as the true renaissance Jew, at home anywhere from a Satmar shtiebel to a Jews for Jesus center. When someone struggles with a blessing in accented halting Hebrew, I smile smugly to myself and under my breath fluently recite the verse. Yet I have only condescension for those who know entire chapters by heart when their fervor is based on blind faith. My nose is constantly turned up - whether at Israeli provincialism or Diaspora parochialism.
But at the end of the day it is a hollow satisfaction. Every alternative stream of Judaism seems ersatz and ultimately unfulfilling, I am forever conditioned by the "authentic" version which I have rejected.
I don't reject for a moment the beauty of the written word and the burden of millennia. Only a fool with no sense of history would spurn such a privileged heritage, both ancient and recent. Judaism may have become hidebound in the hands of rabbis, and politicians have tainted Zionism with opportunism and jingoism, but I refuse to give them satisfaction by jettisoning or renouncing either.
Rereading my columns from the past year, I feel that I have been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to detect and define a common sense of moral and ethical purpose. A Jewish code of decency and cultural identity that has an ancient backbone and is open to change. A modern narrative that includes all the richness of ritual and tradition without being beholden, and loves Israel without being blind to its faults and its squandered potential.
Some will say that my failure to find this elusive Jewish DNA is due to the fact that a lifestyle not based on belief and observance of mitzvot will ultimately lead to ignorance and assimilation. That Jewish existence outside the Promised Land is destined to wither away to extinction. But that is a denial of the richness, versatility and diversity that characterized Jewishness until only a couple of generations ago.
The religious have boxed themselves in with strong but brittle certainties while secular Israelis have neglected the need to build a Jewish alternative. Diaspora communities have by and large failed in creating a relevant identity that is not reliant on Israel. It is the collective failure of my generation. Eager to become part of a globalized society, we have not constructed the next step from which our children can continue to live as Jewish citizens of the world.
Perhaps it's too easy to search for meaning on Yom Kippur when all is calm and serene around - the real challenge is to think for oneself above the tumult and hubbub of everyday life.
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