The Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) – or the Jewish High Holy Days as they are called in the Diaspora – have moved away from a religious exercise and morphed into an experiential phenomenon. In many parts of the Diaspora the holidays, most notably Yom Kippur, our traditional day of atonement, is more about community experience than it is about T’shuvah and Tefilah – repentance and prayer.
In the United States, even the most secular Jews make note of the days – some by doing something special, others by letting everyone know that they are specifically not doing anything special. Or almost nothing special.
The tie that binds modern, secular Jews to the High Holy Days in modern times is – I kid you not – Break Fast. In many cases, the next generation of Jews will know nothing of Yom Kippur traditions: no prayers, no liturgy, no abstention from wearing leather goods or even fasting. All they will know, all they will remember from the homes of their parents and even grandparents, will be the big party known as Break Fast.
Food preparation for Break Fast resonates with tones similar to preparing for the holy grail of American life: Thanksgiving dinner. Only preparing for this feast is easier. Bagels and lox and orange juice in place of turkey and sweet potatoes and sparkling apple cider. The sanctity of the prep process remains the same. And the scramble for invitations is just as crucial.
In that bastion of secular Jewry known as the Upper West Side of Manhattan, for example, most Jews do not enter synagogues. They don’t pray privately at home either. But they do go to Break Fast. Everybody goes to Break Fast. And more often than not, the Break Fast starts before the fast, according to the Jewish calendar, actually breaks. Twenty-five plus hours of no eating or drinking is not a prerequisite for attendance.
And that’s okay. It’s okay for this day that should be the Holy of Holies, to be instead about feasting rather than fasting – to forgo forgiveness and soul searching – because it’s a way for Jews to mark their Jewishness. It’s a way of creating a Jewish memory.
LESS KNOWN, but pretty popular – and growing more popular with each passing year for the “in” crowd, especially on the Upper West Side – is a tradition few can even properly pronounce. Tashlich. The Rosh HaShanah tradition of “casting” your sins to the water is becoming a de rigeur part of the High Holy Days experience. No need for a synagogue or an admission ticket into that synagogue: all one needs is a body of water – and a group of friends to join you.
In Manhattan, thousands upon thousands of young adults descend on the promenade next to the Hudson River. Jews from all walks of life. Jews from all boroughs and even out-of-towners. Organized groups with guitars and handouts with readings. Small clusters of people.
Only a handful of these Tashlich-goers actually come to perform the ritual of Tashlich, of repeating a prayer from a machzor (festival prayer book) and symbolically tossing your sins into the water. But they come – and they forge their own rituals and create more memories. And it’s a sight to behold.
In Israel, too, Kol Nidre – the Yom Kippur Eve call to absolve our vows – is not, like the standard rituals of the Holiest Day, commemorated by all. If it was, the day wouldn’t be nicknamed Chag Ha’Ofanayim, the holiday of bikes and scooters. With streets officially closed to cars, it’s the perfect opportunity for children to cruise along, unfettered and carefree. I understand that, just as I understand the experiential phenomenon of Diaspora Jewry.
BUT THERE’S a big difference between the Israeli non-traditional approach to the Yamim Noraim and the Diaspora one.
Israelis are connected to Israel – and that’s not as simplistic as it sounds. For Israelis, the commitment to be part of the living, pulsing organism called the Jewish State and being a Jew in Israel is undeniable.
Israel, love of Israel, devotion to Israel and yearning for Jerusalem are major themes in Judaism and an often repeated component of our ritualized prayer – not only but especially during the High Holy Days. Break Fast and social Tashlich are single Jewish memories – however, if combined with a serious romantic connection to Israel and tradition, they may be the groundwork for building a committed Diaspora Jewry.
The author is a political commentator. He hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud on JBS TV. Follow him on Twitter @MicahHalpern