Reflections on Yom Kippur

Return of the Yom Kippur Jew

By Israel Zwick, CN Publications, Yom Kippur 5768

See Also: Yom Kippur, Day of Friendship and Love

This year, Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar, falls on a Saturday. Since Yom Kippur can never fall on a Sunday, it is an uncommon event for Yom Kippur to fall on a weekend. That’s an extra incentive to attend synagogue services since Saturday is not a regular business day, there is no need to take a day off from work. So synagogues around America can expect a surge in attendance from what is commonly known as “The Yom Kippur Jews,” the Jews who attend synagogue services only once per year on Yom Kippur.

There may be a variety of reasons why these Jews, who generally do not practice any form of Judaism, are willing to buy a seat to attend synagogue services for one day per year. Some feel a need to honor a commitment to departed parents and participate in the Yizkor Memorial Service. For some it’s a nostalgia trip that brings back memories of the holidays with their parents and grandparents. Others may feel that they need this minimal connection with their faith to have some identification with the Jewish people. For some, it is a family reunion as they all gather to go to the same synagogue and then enjoy a family dinner afterwards. Still others may see it purely as a social event, an opportunity to meet and chat with others that they meet only at this annual event.

The phenomenon of the “Yom Kippur Jew” hasn’t changed much in the half century since I was a child growing up in upper Manhattan. I attended a synagogue in which most of the members were Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe. It was different from most of the synagogues in the neighborhood that were comprised of Jews from Germany who were wise and fortunate enough to escape from the Nazis after Kristallnacht in 1938, before the mass deportations began. Thus, there were major cultural and social differences between the two groups and they didn’t intermingle much.

I was exposed to multiculturalism at an early age, before it became fashionable. Instead of going to the school for the Polish immigrants, Yeshiva Rabbi Moses Soloveichik, my father chose to send me to the school supported by the German community, Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, headed by Rabbi Hirsch’s grandson, Rabbi Joseph Breuer. While I had the disadvantage of speaking only Yiddish when I started school, I found some benefits to this arrangement. At home, my father made me wait six hours between eating meat and dairy, according to the Polish Jewish custom, but in school I could have milk and cookies three hours after eating my salami sandwich, according to the German custom. Then when the Hungarian immigrants came after the Revolution, I befriended the Hungarian boys because they knew even less English than I did. So my early exposure to a variety of cultural practices helped me to develop an acceptance and tolerance for the various types of Jews and their differing customs.

Even that was not enough to prepare me for the invasion of the “American Yom Kippur Jews.” On Yom Kippur, my synagogue swelled to over four times the usual Saturday attendance. The American Jews who joined us seemed strange to me. They talked differently, dressed differently, combed their hair differently, and even wore their taleisim differently, like a scarf over their shoulders. They also engaged in behaviors that seemed strange to me. There was the time that whole synagogue was buzzing with excitement because Senator Jacob Javitz drove up in his black, chauffered limousine to attend the Yizkor Memorial Service, then left shortly after. Then when the Yom Kippur war broke out in 1973, the man sitting in front of me went out periodically to listen to the news on his car radio, then came in to report to the Rabbi. Based on his reports, the Rabbi asked us to say an additional prayer for the young boys who were fighting and dying for the survival of the Jewish State. Then there was the group of men who went across the street to have a smoke in the lobby of a building. Apparently, they could fast for 25 hours but couldn’t survive without that smoke. What puzzled me the most were those who pulled off their yarmulkes immediately as they walked out of the building. After praying to G-d to grant them a year of health and happiness, they seemed to be concerned that they might encounter a colleague in the street who would discover that they engage in religious practices.

In those days, Jews could justify the abandonment of religious practices. In the years after the Holocaust, Jews were afraid to be “too Jewish” and wanted to assimilate into the dominant culture. It was also difficult for many Jews to come home from work early on Friday, take off on Saturday, pay extra to eat kosher foods, or maintain the practices of marital purity. So many of the common Jewish practices seemed to fall by the wayside in the quest to become a good American.

Today the situation is different. Most government and corporate employers are willing to make allowances for religious practices. Many common foods have kosher certification, and a Jew doesn’t have to be ashamed to wear a yarmulke or cap in public. So what puzzles me now is why there are still so many “Yom Kippur Jews.” Why aren’t they coming to synagogue more often? What is keeping them away? Why has Judaism failed to get them back? Has Judaism failed to become relevant or does the blame lie with society or the individual?

Judaism has much to offer. In these days of moral turpitude and hypocrisy, Judaism offers a refreshing alternative. It places value on community service, family cohesion, education, achievement for the good of mankind, and above all, faith in a G-d that puts more meaning into life than just the pursuit of pleasure.

So to the modern generation of “Yom Kippur Jews,” we say, “Please join us again, come back to us, we’ll welcome you with open arms.” A good time to start is next week with the lovely holiday of Succos. Join us in the march around the synagogue with the lulav and esrog. Then join us for a festive meal in the sukkah. If you’re not ready for that yet, then at least make an appointment for a chat with your local Rabbi. If that is too daunting, then visit some of the many websites that explore the beauty and wonders of Judaism. A good one to start with is Virtual Yenta, www.unionavenue.net. Remember: “A journey of a 1000 miles begins with the first step.”  Take that first step, as it says in the Haftorah that we read last week (Hosea 14:8), “Those who sat in his shadow shall return, they shall revive themselves like corn, and they shall blossom like a vine.”  Come back to us soon, so that you may experience that growth and revival.

Best wishes for a year of peace, health, and happiness.

Play MP3 Kol-Nidre, Cantor Leo Roth with choir and orchestra

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