Life & Culture

The strange healing power of Kol Nidre

The music of the Kol Nidre prayer has touched Jews and non Jews, musicians and writers. One writer recalls how it marked the end of a year of personal disorder and helped her heal


There’s no self-help guide explaining what a newlywed should do on the occasion of her first wedding anniversary if she finds herself separated from her husband and living in a flat across the city from him. The man I stood under the chupah with left our marriage seven months after we signed our ketubah. After the shock, there was the waiting: the time when this stranger living on a different branch of the Northern Line from me was still, if only in law, my husband. We weren’t yet divorced, because while gets can be issued at any time, civil divorce proceedings in England can’t begin until a year after the date of marriage.

It was autumn, the High Holy Days were approaching, and so was our anniversary. When I thought of the date, I was emotional, knowing that it was the day that my husband could legally begin proceedings to end our marriage: something I had entered into with such earnestness. A few weeks before the anniversary date, I was looking at the options for High Holy Day services nearby and I discovered that Kol Nidre fell on the same date as the anniversary. I felt a kind of soothing comfort in that. Though I’d never been religious, the High Holy Days had, since my mid 20s, been a time of meaning and reflection for me.

Having been raised in a culturally Jewish rather than practicing home, at this point in my life I had attended the Kol Nidre service no more than a handful of times. Yet I knew enough about it to know that this was exactly where I needed to be on my first wedding anniversary. Not out to dinner, not at home in my pajamas, but in shul. And I wanted to know more about Kol Nidre, this soulful evening which coincided with such an important date in my life. One of my best friends, Leigh, was visiting me from New York that week and we made a plan to go to shul together.

I had, a few days before the anniversary, come across an essay online by Rabbi Eric Solomon of Raleigh, North Carolina, entitled “Examining the Mystery of Kol Nidre.” He writes: “Kol Nidre is an Aramaic phrase which means far more than its literal translation, All Vows.

“This statement of the annulment of vows has become such a dominant part of the Jewish religious psyche that it is commonly used to designate the whole of the Yom Kippur Eve service; its melody is so daunting that hearing the first few bars can send shivers down the spine.” Seeing the phrase ‘annulment of vows’ in black and white made me well up with tears.

Of course, I understood that the Kol Nidre declaration is not supposed to represent the annulment of vows made under a chupah; that is what a get is for, and mine would come four months after Yom Kippur, on a rather cloudy February afternoon at the London Beth Din. But I felt that for me, that year, Kol Nidre might, even if in just a small way, help move me along in my healing a little bit more. Though I’d entered into our marriage with the intent of a lifelong partnership, my husband had thrown me a wild card, and I needed to allow myself to begin again.

Rabbi Sam Fromson of Golders Green Synagogue recently told me: “We have a religion that’s full of laws. And then God gives us this incredible thing, which is, the ability for our words, for our vows, to have the same level of binding authority as one of the God given commandments. That’s quite an incredible responsibility that we have.

“By the fact that we make an oath, a vow about something, it has the full binding halachic authority, equivalent to something that God gave to Moshe. It’s really appreciating that and acknowledging that, the severity of that, the weightiness of it. That’s why we begin Yom Kippur with using our words to ask for forgiveness, as a way of seeking to change our behavior, as a way to lift ourselves up.” I felt that sense of weightiness that year, the desire to change things, to lift myself up.

Leigh and I dressed in white to represent clean slates. We arrived to find Western Marble Arch Synagogue packed to the rafters, a palpable sense of anticipation in the room. I held her hand and sunk into the wooden pew, breathing a little bit easier all of a sudden. I was glad I was there. I had made a few tentative visits to synagogue since my husband left, and each time I felt a sense of connection that helped ground me in the present; this time was no different.

Sitting in shul that Kol Nidre evening, I also felt a strong sense of my own past as I recalled my wedding at a synagogue across town 365 days ago.

Not long after the tune began, tears came to my eyes. Fortunately, Leigh had the foresight to bring tissues. As the choir sang the most haunting of tunes, the notes hit my heart.

Since then I’ve carried on researching, and talking to others about Kol Nidre and its music. Jonny Moseson, a London- based chazan, singer, musician and educator told me: “As a chazan/singer I know the power of melody and yearning. Words are very powerful, but I do feel melody carries you higher still. Words have limitations, in that they require understanding. Melody can greatly enhance and deepen just about anyone’s emotions. Kol Nidre is one of my favourite parts of the service, as it sets the tone for the rest of Yom Kippur. The music creates a sentiment that feels like genuine awe and humbling oneself.”

For my friend Priya, Kol Nidre is about creating a day like no other in the year. “I have a cello version of the Kol Nidre prayer that I play at home. It’s so beautiful and haunting. And I just find it such a special, special time. I feel sad actually, looking back over the years, that sometimes I didn’t actually acknowledge and honour it.”

Composers have been inspired by the melody. The most famous is Max Bruch’s setting for cello and orchestra, composed in 1880, a favourite of young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who played at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

And some believe that Beethoven was inspired by Kol Nidre’s haunting melody, taking it as an inspiration for the sixth movement of his String Quartet Opus 131.

The melody touches non Jews as well as Jews. One friend told me: “To me, Kol Nidre speaks about the human heart and about redemption. The song, and the words, have the power to liberate and to dissolve.”

Those two words liberate and dissolve felt particularly resonant to me on my first wedding anniversary. As the choir sang, I noticed men who looked not dissimilar to my husband, their tallits wrapped around their shoulders, making me think of the tallit I had bought for him less than 15 months beforehand. I hadn’t seen men in tallits since my wedding day.

The sight brought me back to that day, but I didn’t feel overcome with sadness. What I did feel was a sense of community, connection and belonging.

The strangest year of my life was coming to a close. With the music echoing around me, and a dear friend holding my hand, I felt what can only be described as relief and presence. Ahead of me lay a new year: a year in which I could allow myself to begin anew. And for that, I felt profoundly grateful.

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