Religion & Beliefs

Shul Hopping: Occupy Yom Kippur

This Yom Kippur, I gained a new insight into the power of the day. As we grow into mature moral selves, we reach a point when we must ask: do we actually act on our ideals? Read More

By / October 11, 2011

Yom Kippur and I have a convoluted relationship. In childhood, I felt the solemn mood of the day as my father and I dipped in the mikveh to purify ourselves, surrounded by scores of other men in a slightly dingy bathhouse. From there, my family sat down to a king’s feast, but spoke little besides words of forgiveness. As my father left for shul early to say his esoteric prayers, he gave us warm hugs and kisses on our foreheads. Running in and out of shul, potato chips in my hand, I can still see my father huddled over, swaddled in his tallit, crying tears I could not yet understand. And yet, at the end of the day, his smile emanated purity, clarity, and the assurance of forgiveness attained.

With the advent of my own religious zealousness, I joined my father in his early excursions to shul to prepare myself mentally. I delved into the self-lacerating judgment of the day, the feral fear running loose on the precarious identity of a teenager as I begged for forgiveness for my minor litany of sins. I too cried. The tears, though, felt misplaced, but they flowed, and I too felt the weightlessness of the forgiveness bestowed with the setting of the sun, as the gates of supplications closed during the Neilah prayer. Nowadays, standing more aloof from Yom Kippur, I still feel the aftershock of these emotions. However, instead of a participant, I stand somewhere between a member and an observer, content to sit in shul as I read religious books and delve into the complex rooms of my soul.

This Yom Kippur, I gained a new insight into the power of the day. As we grow into mature moral selves, we reach a point when we must ask: do we actually act on our ideals? Many of us speak of injustice, of the rampant avoidable suffering in the world. We feel suffused with empathy, but besides the writing of a check, which isn’t insignificant, this rarely disrupts our normal living. Consequently, to convert my ideals into choices, I attended the Occupy Wall Street Kol Nidrei Service to both protest and learn more about the damages wrought by Wall Street.

I arrived early to accustom myself to the oddity of the scene. Into my heart flowed the contagious electricity: the sort of exhilaration engendered by taking an active part in history. Yom Kippur had never evoked this feeling. In the past, I felt nervous excitement, or the excitement that for one day, for one hour, even for one minute I held the ear of the Creator, but nothing this invigorating.

To say the scene was odd would barely scratch the surface; the protest camp created a sensory overload, leaving a feeling of both intense organization and unbridled chaos. In many ways it felt like a slightly threatening music festival. Next to hi-tech booths that tallied the members of the movement stood a trash heap of dingy sleeping bags. Adjacent to a table manned by two lawyers handing out booklets of our rights(I didn’t know that if police come to my door with a warrant I can demand that before they enter they slip the warrant under the door.) stood a haphazard, homeless shelter-like feeding line. Yet despite outward appearances, a sense of budding community pervaded throughout the atmosphere.

The main theme of the protest is one of unbridled emotional power. There is a pervasive confusion stemming from the lack of defined goals, purposes, and a leader. The sheer heterogeneity of people, a mix of hipsters, hippies, tourists, academics, angry goth kids with painted skeleton faces, the homeless, the elderly, the sophisticated, ranging across classes, made it hard to draw the line between anger and insanity. One man, clearly insane, accosted me because of my Kippah. He yelled at me for not knowing the significance of the Glass-Steagall act, assuming that I spent too much time studying Torah instead of fulfilling my civic duty. Another man, covered in tattoos, with electric tape on his face, clearly livid at something, put on a two minute silent play in which he took the arm of a mannequin, smashed it against a gold paper cut out of heart and then dipped the hand in blood-colored paint while he yelled.

For all this confusion, I stood impressed by the devotion, the passion, and the intelligence of many protesters. By now, the cohesive general assembly which, because of an absurd law against bullhorns, requires a call and response, stands as a paragon of intelligent, peaceful, unified protest. Speakers, some more knowledgeable than others, explicate not only the sins of Wall Street, but provide concrete actions for the future (This is a must watch.) Besides these fascinating, intelligent, and beautifully cooperative assemblies, finding other signs of sanity amongst the throng of revelers quieted the cynic in my heart.

Specifically, one man, a taller gentleman towering over the rest of the crowd, held a sign that read, “Our economy could be more fair.” Many of the more coherent signs required sustained reading leading to an inevitable discussion with their creator who very often displayed a realistic understanding of the situation of the 99% movement, both its strengths and their weaknesses.

As the time for Kol Nidrei arrived, I noticed a small zone in which people placed spiritual or religious articles in a ring bordered by lavender flowers. Right next to this, a kind elderly woman began lighting Yarzheit candles for a motley assortment of Jews: Allen Ginsberg, the Warsaw Ghetto Jews, the Rosenberg and others. At this auspicious moment, I knew the time had come to cross the street to take part in the minyan.

Walking into the crowd of smiling prayers, I noted the contrast between the tenor of the service and the chaotic revelry of the protest. Not that the congregation displayed a lack of joy, or purpose, but that there was such clear cohesion, calm, and organization amongst our group. We began with about 100 people but swelled to about 1000 jovial participants. We easily congregated in a circle, with the cantors in the center, using the protesters’ technique of call and response during their speeches.

The service began with the chanting of the Ohr Zarua verse. The opening words of this somber ceremony, usually intoned in a pensive tune, were now sung with joy. Following this, the cantor bellowed that strange prayer in which we allow ourselves to pray with all transgressors. In translation, the cantor changed “transgressors” to all types of people, which highlighted some of the inherent inconsistency in tone of this service/protest. From the aspect of the protest, I understand the need to not include all sinners, but from the aspect of Yom Kippur I see both the beauty and necessity of an invitation for all to pray before the Almighty.

Before the silent prayer, one of the cantors uttered simple words: “there are lots of beautiful words in here, and lots of beautiful words in your heart. You choose your words,” And for five minutes, amidst the din of the noise from the protest, despite the chatter of the cops, the clanging of drums, sustained, meditative silence spread throughout our square.  Afterwards, we focused on a new list of sins. In this admixture of prayer and protest, the service’s vision of prayer as protest reached its culmination. We proclaimed our sins: Being cynical about repairing the world, for tolerating global warming, global poverty, and global disease, for not defending Israel, for not defending Palestine, with each collective sin eliciting a louder shout. In similar fashion, for the Aleinu prayer, we were asked to respond, “Aleinu” if we agreed with the person’s commitment. I will fight for living wages, Aleinu! I will work for real universal health care. Aleinu! We will hold ourselves accountable for the occupation of Palestine! Which received, perhaps, the loudest Aleinu! In general, while I appreciated the sentiment of this innovative prayer, some of the commitments sounded unrealistic and illogical. I wanted to, like the man with the sensible sign, raise my hand and shout, “I will learn more about the economic situation before making any hasty decisions,” but before I built up the courage the service ended.

One part that I cannot overlook is the inherent absurdity, in the healthy comical sense; that crept into this moving event. To facilitate hearing, the leaders requested that we shift places based on height, to which every person in the crowd laughed at the ridiculousness of trying to parse apart the small range of Jewish height. Other quirky absurdities: The Halal cart right next to our group, the passing of an ad hoc marching band playing the tune of, “Nananana hey hey goodbye” as we intoned the 13 attributes of divinity. Finally, the cantor explaining that, “We are praying in the direction of Jerusalem; not for political reasons but for spiritual reasons,” elicited laughter right before we stepped into judgment.

Ultimately, this service worked better as a message, as an event, than as a service, both for technical and conceptual reasons. Technically, the noise from across the street compounded with the lack of bullhorns made it hard to hear. Conceptually, and here my bias shines through, politics often, though not necessarily, dilutes individual spirituality. It stokes the flames of action but quenches the inner voice of the desperate soul.

In that vein, as I walked the 100 blocks home, singing those plangent, hopeful, and nostalgic Yom Kippur tunes, my feet blistered, I felt torn between the service and protest aspect of the event. Yom Kippur, to me, should represent a day in which I stand defenseless in front of my creator, in front of a being who understands me in a way qualitatively unimaginable. I missed the synagogue, the tears of the day, the quiet, once a year dialogue between the real you and the Divine.

Yet, so many Jewish thinkers comment that religion stagnates in separation from the theatre of history. As a people, our light unto the nations has been extinguished, or covered, left in a dark corner ripe for resuscitation. When did we lose that prophetic spark of a people not afraid of cynicism, but who fight for true justice, for the downcast? In the immediate wake of the event, I discerned the beginning of a shift in my thoughts. I felt the small fluttering of hope, hope in an engaged communal Jewish future, hope in our generation’s ability to transcend apathy, cynicism, and irony, and hope that through our redemptive actions we can again make God relevant in history as a force for the enhancement of human dignity.


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