Posts Tagged Jew

In defence of Yom Kippur

Part two of my Yom Kippur ramble. See here for part one.

So last week I had a long post lamenting the decline of Yom Kippur and the fact that I couldn't get a goddamn drink of water afterwards. That brings me to what was supposed to be the point before I got side-tracked by other things: Yom Kippur.

I first have to explain a little about my personal beliefs and practises. I am not a “believer” in the sense that I believe that the bible is the unbreakable law dictated by God itself and preserved word-for-word since. I am a believer in the sense that I have yet to be given a better explanation for the fact that I not only exist, but am able to sit here typing into my iPad and questioning the meaning of things on WordPress. I am also a Jew — I was born a Jew, I was raised a Jew, and I see a great deal of value in some Jewish traditions and beliefs.

The key word there being some. There are other Jewish traditions and beliefs (mostly traditions) that I see no value in or even disagree with. My approach, therefore, is to try and learn about everything, follow the parts that make sense, ignore the ones that don't, and fight against the ones that are harmful. In fact, that's the approach I try to take with everything, not just religion.

For example, I am not currently keeping the festival of Succot, which began today. Succot has just never made sense to me. I understand that it has to do with the harvest, but I: a) live in the Southern Hemisphere, where we are not currently harvesting; and b) am not and have never been a farmer, therefore do not know much abut harvests. I also kind of understand the point about spending time in crude, outdoor structures like the ones our ancestors had to live in when they were wondering through the desert, but I have never found much meaning in the experience.

And that's not even getting into the whole shaking the branches around thing. I mean, seriously! What's up with that?

On the other hand, I really like everything about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When I contrast these two festivals to the secular new year, there is really not much comparison. There is a tradition in the West of making “new year's resolutions” that you break within a month and, otherwise, it's just marking a milestone/an excuse to get drunk (not that I don't like an excuse to get drunk, but still).

The Jewish approach to the new year just seems much more valuable. You have to take the time to be with family and to reflect on the good and bad things that you have done over the past year, apologise to those you have harmed (and that means a real apology), and think about how you could be a better person. Yom Kippur is the pinnacle of the whole tradition. It's a day out of each year when you are supposed to devote purely to self-reflection, to the extent that you forego usual distractions like eating and drinking to give you more focus.

I know a lot of people say “but fasting just makes me think about eating more”, but I disagree. You would be thinking about eating anyway, you're human. The fact that you think about eating but can't eat forces you to dwell on why you are depriving yourself of food, which means that you spend the whole day of Yom Kippur remembering that it is Yom Kippur. It's actually quite a powerful experience if you think about it. And of course, there is the test of willpower that I think can't possibly be a bad thing – knowing that you can eat and still depriving yourself for a purpose is something that a lot of spoilt people are not capable of doing (no names mentioned).

And there are other aspects that I like. The idea of communal confessions, for instance. There is something very powerful in the idea of the whole community coming together and all confessing at once to being flawed. It's a very egalitarian concept and very humbling. Compare it, for instance, to the Catholic idea of confession — a private confession to a priest of your sins. The dynamic there is completely different: you are inferior to the priest, who is absolving you on God's behalf. Your sins are private and secretive – ie something you do not want other people to know about.

In synagogue on Yom Kippur, on the other hand, everyone is a sinner – from the rabbi to the wealthiest and most powerful members of the community to the criminals and drug addicts. And that happens publicly. Everyone confesses to each other and to God that they are not perfect, that they did things that were wrong, and they promise in front of each other to be better people.

These are things that would only ever come through a religious tradition. My atheist friends tell me that they are “always trying to improve themselves”, or say things like “well I could do that any day of the year”. My answers are: “no you are not” and “but you don't”.

You do not live your life constantly improving yourself, because that is just not how human beings function. There is no way to be self-reflexive in that way without taking a step back – as Yom Kippur compels you to do. And I do not know any non-Jews who take a day each year purely for that purpose, let alone doing it communally.

For all those reasons, I think that Yom Kippur is a very positive tradition and it is one that I will continue to keep. That is why it saddens me that so many in my community do not feel the need to keep or respect it. I feel that it is kind of a knee-jerk reaction more than anything else – they have decided that they don't want to “be Jewish” for one reason or another and therefore it is all meaningless and it is all a waste of time.

The worst part of it is that the person boasting to me about the bacon roll that they ate on Yom Kippur morning is still letting their life be defined by Judaism. Doing that is not actually “ignoring” Judaism, so much as being unnecessarily spiteful. No matter how they may rationalise it to themselves, the reality is that they know that it is Yom Kippur and are cognicent of the fact that they are deliberately doing something slightly disrespectful to the day in order to prove a point to themselves and – judging by the fact that I was being boasted to – to others.

It seems like teenage rebellion more than anything else, like the kids who wear the wrong socks to school, even though their teacher keeps telling them not to, just because they can and “YOU CAN'T TELL ME HOW TO LIVE!!!”

It's puerile and its pointless.

The vast majority of people who are not keeping Yom Kippur have never thought about why they are not doing it, they are just allowing what they do not do to define what they do – ie “I am not religious” therefore” I do not keep festivals”. But why define your life in black and white terms like that? Just because some Jewish things are annoying or pointless does not mean that there is no value in others.

To me, it's not a smart way to live and will definitely not make you a better person.



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Don’t put the girls and the drinks at the back of the room: why Yom Kippur needs saving

Note: this post was originally entitled ‘In defence of Yom Kippur’, but I started explaining why YK needs saving in the first place and that became an entire post. So please read this first and I promise that the defence is coming.

As I walked into my relatives’ home yesterday to break my fast, it was quite obvious to me that the whole function had been planned and organised by people who had not themselves been fasting.

How could I tell? Simple: after 25 hours of not eating or drinking, the one thing that you need more than anything else is some liquid. The human body can actually survive relatively well for weeks without food, but a couple of days with no water and *goodbye*. Knowing this, anyone who had been fasting would have drinks — and a lot of them — made very available for everyone leaving synagogue and coming to the social part of the evening.

As I walked through the door, however, I was greeted not with drinks, but with a whole range of food. This is not to say that I have a problem with the honey cake, chopped liver and other Ashkenazi fast-breaking treats — it’s just that it’s extremely difficult to swallow a mouthful of honey cake without choking when your throat feels like it has been covered in a layer of fly-paper.

I said the obligatory hello to the several relatives who caught my eye as soon as I walked in, but during this time my eyes were constantly searching for the elusive drinks table. I asked one of my interlocutors where I could find myself a drink around there, and he promptly pointed down the hallway, through a crowd of 50 assorted relatives and family friends, to the garden at the back of the house.

My face dropped in dismay. There was no conceivable way that I would be able to get to the drinks table without being stopped by at least one parent, two grandparents, one auntie and two or three cousins — each of whom would take up approximately 5 minutes of conversation before I could make a polite exit. Nevertheless, I have been fortunate enough to have had some rather intense commando-style training in moving through crowds with my head down, and this was definitely the occasion to use it.

A few minutes later, having managed to avoid eye contact with the vast majority of my kin, I arrived panting at the drinks table, only to discover that my cousins had hired a bartender for the evening to cater to the 70-odd guests and that — being a professional — he had a few bottles of mostly alcoholic drinks on the table and all of the glasses behind him. To my even further dismay, he was using those tiny glasses that people seem to think makes a function more classy, but I’m pretty sure are only used by restaurants to force customers to keep ordering more overpriced drinks as there is no way 200ml of anything can remotely quench anyone’s thirst.

At that point I probably would have started shooting my own family if it meant there was a drink at the end of it, yet I still had to wait for another 3 minutes while the bartender casually served other people as though he had all the goddamn time in the world and there wasn’t some guy standing there about to collapse from dehydration. When I finally managed to grab him by the arms his attention, I ordered three glasses of sparkling water (there was no still) which, after what seemed like an eternity of pouring, I was finally able to gulp down.

Now I am not telling this story not just to vent — I’m getting to the point, I promise you.

Putting the drinks at the back and guarded by the bartender would seem like a perfectly natural thing to do when putting on a function of that size which was not a breaking-of-the-fast. For those of us who did fast, however, it was torture. This is relevant because it suggests — as was the case — that most of my family did not fast. In fact, most of my family were not even at any shul services.

I have done calculations before that put shul attendance on Yom Kippur in Sydney at about 50% of Sydney’s Jews, excluding those who cannot make it because they are too young, too elderly or too unhealthy. There are many reasons why the other half of our community do not attend and if you had the next week or two to keep reading this I could perhaps list most of them, but as it is I may have to settle for one or two.

One thing that I can say for sure is this: the men in my family may put in an appearance at shul, but the women don’t go. Similarly, the women do not fast. That is true across the board — my sister, my mother, my grandmother, my aunties, my female cousins — they all arrived at dinner much earlier than those of us who were rushing home from the ne’ila service for the reason of having been not at the service and not fasting. (Some will tell you that they fasted until the afternoon, but to me that is called ‘skipping breakfast’ and happens once a week, not once a year. Also, in fairness, my mother did go to shul — but I will explain that below.)

This, while perhaps unfortunate, is unsurprising. As you may have gathered, my family is not particularly observant of our religion. Despite this, almost without fail, they have seats at Central Synagogue. That is the major Orthodox synagogue in Sydney, which charges an obscene amount of money for seats that people renew each year but never sit on.

In a religion and a culture that is theoretically so focused on questions and discussion, you would think that at some point people would ask questions like “why do I pay $3,000 every year to attach a little chrome plate with my name inscribed onto a chair in a synagogue that I never intend to ever sit on?” But ours is a community that is never taught to ask these things — all we really “know” is that it would be “wrong” not to fork-out the cash.

I think I may have touched on this before, but I follow Mazorti and not Orthodox Judaism primarily because we do not believe in forcing the women to the back of the room and hiding them away, lest we be distracted from the important things — like peering over the shoulder of the guy in front to see where we are up to in the service, counting the amount of pages left, then crying a little when we realise that we have only gone through five pages in the last half hour because the chazzan loves his annual moment in the spotlight and feels the need to drag each syllable out as far as it can possibly be stretched and then repeat the whole line.

You know, because you can’t do that if you’re standing next to your mother. She might distract you, by being female and therefore quite possibly having cooties. Or something.

I, for one, can attest to the falsity of these entrenched tenets of Orthodoxy. I spent part of Tuesday night standing next to my mother in shul and still managed to not follow the service like a pro — I must have lost my place at least a dozen times.

Point is, if I were a woman and a member of an Orthodox shul (neither of which I am) I wouldn’t go either. I have been to Central on Yom Kippur and peered into that upstairs balcony from whence the womenfolk look down upon the service happening below and I know that what goes on there is not so much prayer as it is… let’s go with “discussion of secular topics”, to be polite. I have no idea why anyone would even need to go to shul to sit and chat when the same thing could be done anywhere else, so why bother?

Another consequence of the gender segregation in shul is that it breaks up families. One relative observed to me that he has a wife and three children and cannot be with them the whole day if they go to shul, so they don’t — and his wife has a very prominent educational role in our community.

Meanwhile, I have also been in the men’s section at the back of Central and found a lesser version of the experience of the women’s section. At least you are not totally excluded from the service and do get the occasional opportunity to reach out and touch the Torah scroll with your tallit as some dude walks by carrying it, but there is still a lot of gossiping and not much davening at all.

One thing it is most certainly not is any kind of spiritual experience — and yet the rabbis wonder why nobody shows up on any other day of the year.

Well, I think it’s a shame. I will stop here because this post is too long already, but bear with me and I will soon explain why I think YK is important and the kinds of things we could be doing instead.

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Ivory tower watch: sure you hate the homosexuals, but if you kill Americans you are in the ‘global left’

Pro-BDS, ‘post-structuralist’ academic Judith Butler has controversially been given some German award that nobody had heard of until they decided to give it to her. But apparently is a big deal in the city of Frankfurt.

I, for one, am completely indifferent outraged!

Well, when I say ‘for one’, what I mean is ‘as one of many’. This incident seems to have sparked a bombardment of Frankfurt the likes of which have not been seen since… the Allies dropped 12,197 tons of explosives on the city in the World War II (more like: World War TOO soon).

Anyway, as Kenan Malik explains, Butler is known less for supporting BDS and more for her godawful writing, which is almost impossible to understand and, for those who have the patience to get their heads around it, says nothing very interesting anyway.

Oh, and there was also this little doozy that seems to have been brought-up a fair bit during said bombardment of Frankfurt:

Benjamin Weinthal and Richard Landes: The Post-Self-Destructivism of Judith Butler –

Participating in an “Anti-War Teach-In” at Berkeley in 2006, Ms. Butler answered a question about Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s place “in the global left.” These are two of the most belligerent movements within the warmongering, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic world of Islamist jihad. Yet while criticizing violence and “certain dimensions of both movements,” Ms. Butler told the students that “understanding Hamas [and] Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.”

And there we go: exactly what I’ve been complaining about all this time! This is a self-proclaimed ‘progressive’ claiming two groups to her cause that are not merely conservative, but are actually bent on returning to a 7th Century society in which homosexuals were hung, adulterers were stoned to death and women were neither seen nor heard unless they were being beaten or raped, in which case it was probably their fault and they may be liable for death by stoning since they did technically commit adultery while they were being raped.

Oh and that’s not to mention the whole ‘driving the Jews into the ocean’ thing. Or the part about going to heaven for killing a Jew.

Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty damn progressive to me. Lucky we have people on the global left to fight against injustice by firing rockets towards civilian areas and hoping to hit something.



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