Kol Nidre: Thoughts on Yom Kippur From a Nonpracticing Jew
According to JewishEncyclopedia.com, Kol Nidre is an Aramaic prayer recited at the start of the evening service on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement. It is the most serious holiday in Judaism, observed by fasting and praying all day. At the end of this 25 hour period, God will decide whether to record a person's name in the Book of Life.
I have not been to synagogue for Yom Kippur since I was a freshman in high school, and even then, I don't think I went to evening services, so I don't remember the Kol Nidre. (There are many versions on YouTube; I particularly like this one.) When I realized that I did not believe in God -- or at least a God as defined by the Torah -- I told my parents I would not go to services any longer. It made a mockery both of myself and of the believers for me to sit amongst them and pretend to atone to a God I did not believe in for sins I did not believe that I committed.
Sometime in junior high, it occurred to me that the world was fucked up beyond reason. I could look at my own family and see the impact of this. What did my grandfather do to be punished by the loss of his family and friends? If God choose the Jews as His people, then how could He sit back and let the Holocaust happen? What kind of God is this? I should thank this deity? It seemed wrong. Still, I was not ready to write off the whole God thing until I learned that the whole baby-in-basket-plucked-from-the-river-by-a-princess-who-ultimately-liberates-his-people was a Babylonian myth. Coincidentally, the story of Moses began circulating amongst the Jews while they were slaves in Babylon? Forget it.
Yet I never walked away from being Jewish. While I do not observe the religious rituals, I hold my Eastern European cultural heritage very closely. So when I think about the Kol Nidre tonight, I think about the poem by Władysław Szlengel, a poet from Warsaw who chronicled the destruction of Warsaw's Jewish population in the ghetto between 1940 and 1943. "Kol Nidre," which I think was written in 1937, says everything:
I've never understood the content and the words,
Only the melody of the prayer.
While my eyes I close, I see again
Reminisces from my childhood
The yellow grayish glow of candle light,
Sad movements of arms and beards,
I hear a cry, wailing
And immense plea for mercy, a miracle...
Whipping of the chest, clasping hands -
The glory of old books,
Fear of verdicts unknown and dark.
That night I'll never tear off my heart,
A menacing mysterious night,
And the grieved prayer Kol Nidrei ---
I know by now, when I feel bad
Or tomorrow, when fate will be more courteous to me,
In my thoughts I'll come back to that night,
In my heart I shall be in it.
Come with me - - -
Jews - frightened, beaten, persecuted,
Cast out of everything - - -
You - that that your benches were broken,
Your faith as well and your skulls.
You - whose mouths are been shut,
As are the roads, the shops.
You - mud is thrown on your faces.
You - who know already what
Is fear from human being.
And you -
Who want to forget that only yesterday,
Or a hundred years ago,
To the tangle of the big affairs,
To the excess of the big people
To the lie of the big words,
Hiding yourselves behind the backs
Of foreign ideas, not yours...
You - free of
On the same long big night
to the foggy memories sunk in sentiments
In the heart and in the tear
Go back to the darkened prayer rooms
From long lost childhood,
Where grayish light gleam and candles cry,
Where Mothers wring their hands,
And through trembling hands,
Pages of yellow books murmur,
While injustice lie like a stone on our soul.
At least we shall be united in our hearts
In the sad prayer of Kol Nidrei.
On Sept. 27, 1939, three days after Yom Kippur, Warsaw capitulated to the Nazis. At the time, over 350,000 Jews called that city home, including my grandfather and his family. It was the largest, most vibrant Jewish community in Europe. God did not write many names in the Book of Life after that. By 1945, less than 3,500 of those people were still alive. In June, my friend and I traveled to Warsaw. She asked the shopkeeper at a synagogue if he thought there was a lot of anti-Semitism. He laughed for a second, then looked at us without smiling. "Who is there to be anti-Semitic against?"
Tonight I'm going to see my brother-in-law's baby. My husband is cooking falafel. While we will celebrate life instead of fasting and atoning, my heart will still be united with my people in the sad prayer of Kol Nidre.