In his monumental historical survey of American Judaism (2004), Jonathan Sarna describes how in early twentieth-century New York every available hall would be transformed into a synagogue on the High Holy Days, even those which normally served as dance halls, theatres or restaurants. One hall on New York’s Rivington Street in the Lower East Side housed five separate congregations, each on a different floor, with services lasting for 12 hours straight on Yom Kippur.
A self-described Jewish “free thinker” recorded for posterity how his heart grew “heavy and sad” as the High Holy Days approached. Walking past the synagogue and hearing the cantor’s High Holy Day melodies reminded him of his “happy childhood years” and his “sweet childlike faith”. Eventually, he decided to go inside, reflecting afterwards that:
“I went, not in order to pray to God, but to heal and refresh my aching soul with the cantor’s sweet melodies, and this had an unusually good effect on me. Sitting in the synagogue among landslayt [people from my home town] and listening to the good cantor, I forgot my unhappy weekday life — the dirty shop, my boss, the bloodsucker… All of my America with its hurry-up life was forgotten…”
I love this quote, because I think it goes to the heart of what draws Jews of all levels of religiosity to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. There is a deep sense of identity that gravitates people back towards the Jewish community on these days, and there is a profound significance in the fact that, for many, this is specifically expressed in shul attendance.
Throughout the year, we are bombarded with negative headlines which threaten to define our Jewish identity in relation to problems such as antisemitism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, or inter and intra-communal conflict. Under threat, we retreat into our core Jewish identity, both as a community and as individuals, holding on to it like an anchor in a storm-tossed sea. Although we proudly cling to that identity against the odds, we often seem forced to emphasise it only in the light of these negative factors.
But the High Holy Days are an entirely different expression altogether of Jewish identity. They allow us to define our Jewish identity on our own terms, rather than through those that would be imposed upon us by others. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we feel that immense sense of pride that can only come from the privilege of association with other members of our faith, heritage and tradition.
As a community, our views and levels of religious practice may differ widely from one another. But the beauty of expressing that very identity through shul attendance on these days, together with our own landslayt of every stripe and colour, is that it minimises these differences, and maximises what we have in common as a people.
And the true benefit of approaching Jewish identity in this positive, global way, is that it in turn reminds us of the real reasons why that identity is worth preserving at all costs.
When I look around the shul on the High Holy Days, I think of the uniqueness of the Jewish people and their priceless contribution to humanity.
I think of Catholic author Paul Johnson’s honest reflection in his, A History of the Jews (1987) that, through the Torah, the Jewish people gifted the world with new, revolutionary concepts such as equality before the law, the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person. How the Jewish people spread hitherto unknown ideas such as individual and collective conscience, personal redemption, and social responsibility. And how the Jewish prophets preached “peace as an abstract ideal… love as the foundation of justice”, and “many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind”. And I think, too, of his timeless words that the Jewish people, “stand right at the centre of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose”.
Such thoughts, to my mind, spring from a Jewish identity borne out of pride, rather than a sense of victimhood. They exist within a world in which the factors that unite us as a people are stronger than those that divide or threaten us.
And, like that Jewish man on the Lower East Side a century ago, the High Holy Days grant us the ability to forget, for just a few brief, precious, moments the “unhappy, weekday, life” of the negative headlines of the past year.
On these days, we can all, in the most meaningful way possible, be proud to be Jewish.
Rabbi Birnbaum is Rabbi of the Hadley Wood Jewish Community.