I’ve always admired the holiday of Yom Kippur for its introspective meditation and simple clarity. Known as the “white fast” (as opposed to Tishah B’Av, the “black” fast), it aspires to a sort of spiritual purity. It’s not at all a sad day, just a serious one.
Yom Kippur is a day of cheshbon nefesh, a very personal stock-taking of our vices and virtues. But we pursue this deeply subjective enterprise in a very public setting, surrounded by hundreds of our fellow Jews each engaging in their own private dramas. It makes for a special set of tensions that can bring out the best in oneself and one’s community.
But this is not at all the way the holiday was celebrated in ancient Israel. Then it was a day on which engagements were announced and there was even an element of fertility worship on such a day that might lead to such engagements.
Returning to latter-day Jewish life, you pare down things on Yom Kippur. You shed leather shoes and belts, you fast, you cleanse the soul, you pray to be sealed in the Book of Life, you summon the beloved dead in Yizkor, you pound your breast for the sins acknowledged in community, you sing beautiful, stately melodies; and then feverishly, at the day’s end as the sun sets and the doors to heaven close, you raise your worship to a profound intensity brought on by hunger and by an intimacy with the divine. Then the shofar blows those piercing, lingering notes of the tekiah g’dolah and it is over. Hundreds of you raise your voices in joy and relief. You hope that your spiritual efforts won favor and were enough for God to give you another year.
Back in graduate school, I loved the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, one of the greatest Israeli poets of the 20th century. He wasn’t a political poet per se. But he didn’t shy away from political themes either. Here he describes a walk in Jerusalem’s Old City a few short months after the end of the 1967 War:
On Yom Kippur 5728 ,
I donned dark holiday clothing and walked to Jerusalem’s Old City.
I stood for quite a while in front of the kiosk shop of an Arab,
Not far from Sh’chem (Nablus) Gate,
A shop full of buttons, zippers and spools of thread of every color;
And snaps and buckles.
Brightly lit and many colored like the open Holy Ark.
I said to him in my heart that my father too
Owned a shop just like this of buttons and thread.
I explained to him in my heart about all the decades
And the reasons and the events leading me to be here now
While my father’s shop burned there
And he is buried here.
When I concluded it was the hour of N’eilah (“locking the gates”).
He too drew down the shutters and locked the gate
As I returned homeward with all the other worshippers.
–from Achshav Ba’Ra’ash (“Now, Noisily”), Schocken, 1975, page 11-12
translation Richard Silverstein
When I first studied this poem I thought it was an almost miraculous attempt to bridge worlds from Jewish Europe to Jewish Israel to Arab Palestine. But as time has passed and the conflict has deepened and grown ever more toxic, one sees more of what is absent. There is a narrator engaged in a form of communication that is part prayer. But it is so internal that he makes no real contact with his interlocutor. He wants his new neighbor-by-conquest to understand why he is here, why great suffering brought him from Europe to this Jerusalem. It is, for the Israeli, a seemingly friendly approach like reaching out your hand to a stranger and hoping he will shake it.
While reaching out to the Palestinian shopkeeper even in prayer is laudable, there is no sense of community. Who is he addressing? Isn’t this done more for himself than the Palestinian? If so, then it is a failed communication as so much of the “dialogue” between Israeli Jew and Palestinian has been for much of this century and the last.
The Palestinian. What does HE think? What and where are his roots? Why doesn’t the narrator care? Why does he only want to make his own personal story known but not to hear the history of the Palestinian shopkeeper? In a nutshell, this poem epitomizes the romance and failure of the liberal Israeli narrative. It sought to communicate to the Palestinians the Jewish narrative without absorbing any of the Palestinian. And that is the tragedy of liberal Zionism.
It is not only Amichai…it includes Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, a veritable roster of Israel’s most distinguished men (yes, they are mostly men) of letters. There are writers who have broken free of this mold, but they are generally the younger generation (though Dahlia Rabikovitch was the exception here).