The night before Yom Kippur, Jerusalem is crazy with penance: the Sephardic Jews have been rising before dawn for more than a month now to beat their breasts before God, and the Ashkenazi Jews have been swaying to their own penitential prayers since before Rosh Hashanah. Buses pull up from all over the country for “authentic” slichot tours – you can pop your head into the hole-in-the-wall Syrian synagogue in Nachla’ot, and then walk downtown to the blue and gold grandeur of the Italian synagogue, rounding off your night walk with a visit to a bakery opening just for the pre-dawn crowd. Perhaps if you feel especially sorry, you can go to the Western Wall, where thousands gather on the nights leading up to Yom Kippur for confession and public penance, creating confusing traffic jams at odd hours.
What are we sorry for, what do we regret? Yom Kippur atones for sins between God and humans, but does not atone for sins between humans, says the Mishnah. In fact, if you have not first appeased your fellow human being, atonement on Yom Kippur before God will not work at all. Perhaps this Mishnaic injunction comes as a corrective to an older religion, in which the magic of Yom Kippur purifies us completely, wipes the slate clean. Instead the Rabbis give us a more difficult spiritual practice, which holds much less satisfaction.
This year a group of about fifty of us said our pre-Yom Kippur penitential prayers in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem which is being forcibly “settled” by Jewish nationalists. Jewish activists recited their penances to evicted Arab families. Jews and Arabs together chanted the traditional Jewish penetential prayer, “Adon Ha-Slichot” – “The Master of Forgiveness,” in Arabic and Hebrew. We read from a selection of Mahmoud Darwish’s “State of Seige” and sang “Avinu Malkeinu.”
It was a solemn, quiet night. According to an agreement with the police, we were to stay together in the enclosed courtyard of the disputed house on Uthman Ibn Affan Street, and not take our “provocations” out onto the street or the neighborhood. With us was Nassar Ghawi, who grew up in a house his father built in 1956 across the street. Just over a year ago, he and 37 members of his family had been forcibly evicted. This night, with a gaudy menorah decorating Ghawi’s old house, he read to us the medieval Jewish penitential prayers translated into Arabic, the light from a candle in a tin box glinting off his glasses. Rabbi Arik Asherman quoted the poety of Yehuda Amichai, who went to the old city on Yom Kippur after 1967 wearing dark clothes to make his silent, wordless prayer to an Arab shopkeeper. Amichai knew that wearing white, the color of penitence, is impossible in East Jerusalem.
Some sins between humans are impossible to atone for, especially if they are entangled in the doublespeak and vagueness of the bureaucracy of occupation. Judy told me, “when I moved to French Hill in 1973, I asked who the land belonged to. It was Israeli, they told me, and I chose to believe them.” Now she knows she built her house on Isawiya’s grazing land.
Once, a little girl called out to R. Josiah B. Haninah, “isn’t that field you’re walking through a private field?”
He said, “No, this is a trodden path.”
She said, “Robbers like yourself have trodden it down.”
We want to have the clarity of the little girl, to call out black from white, to know when we are acting correctly, when we are trespassing. If I stole a house, I want to return it. I want to wear white clothes on Yom Kippur, but Amichai knew – we only get to wear dark clothes.
Yom Kippur poses a difficult puzzle in troubled times. How can you atone for deeds you know will be continuing in the next year? Isn’t the open agreement of penance to change your ways? Perhaps these impossibilities can also be part of religious practice.
Since coming back to Israel last March, and participating in weekly Friday afternoon demonstrations, I’ve lost my appetite for synagogue on Friday night. In the same breath that the radio plays holiday songs – the Perchey Boys’ choir singing in sweet pre-pubescent voices “ve-samachta b’chagecha!,” –it announces the usual holiday curfew imposed on the entire West Bank.
Palestinian villages and neighborhoods live in the shadow of the Jewish calendar. In Sheikh Jarrah, demonstrations were first held on Friday afternoon because the Palestinian residents felt especially vulnerable during Jewish Friday night prayers, when settler-sympathizers from all around Jerusalem streamed into the neighborhood, often leaving broken store windows in their wake. Chanukah, Purim, and Lag Ba’Omer are all days when settlers might get power-drunk and rowdy. What a strange Jewish religion this has become – did the Zionist dream of normalization (Jewish policemen, Jewish prostitutes…) include Jewish pogroms?
After putting out the word about our Arab-Jewish penitential service, a counter-slichot service got quickly organized by the settlers to occur at the same time. What a cognitive dissonance! They were also going to make penances, beat their breasts, chant “We are guilty, we betrayed, we stole…” But they must have had a voice inside chanting “Not me! Not guilty! Not betraying! I stole nothing!” Instead of humbling themselves before the Master of the Universe and before humans they have wronged, they point a finger – not us, but them! they are guilty! The Arabs stole! The anarchist rabble betrayed!
This is how the settlers unravel Judaism itself, verse by verse, turning our practices and holidays into an orgy of anger and hatred.
My heartbreak encompasses both the awful and ongoing injustices of the occupation, and also the loss of our ability to feel good about our own calendar, to want to hold our own flag. Even simply celebrating a holiday in modern-day Israel is stained in the suffering that we have imposed on the Palestinian people. The Israeli flag, in Jerusalem, flies above the triumphant occupied houses of Palestinian made refugees twice over, and I’m not sure I will ever want to hold it again.
The Messiah hasn’t come yet. The occupation isn’t over. I keep trying to write this article about Sheikh Jarrah and something else happens, a father of five gets shot in Silwan by an Israeli guard, a baby dies of tear gas in Isawiyah, “unidentified” Bedouin villages like El-Araqib are torn down by the police in the Negev. Maybe one day the peace talks will succeed, maybe we will all one day get tired and give up our dreams of a tiny Empire. We will get a chance for a settling of accounts, we will get to hear witnesses and bear witness to what went on here. Maybe one day we too will have our “Truth and Reconciliation Committee” and heal our broken souls.
In the meantime, these Yom Kippur concepts of atonement, forgiveness, healing, feel like a pipe dream. Still, perhaps they can inspire us to think of future possibilities. Who must we confess our sins to? What words of compassion do we need to say? What words of compassion to we need to hear? (and from whom?)
This year in Jerusalem has often made me want to abandon Judaism and Jewish symbols; wouldn’t it be the most Jewish thing to pack up my talk of spirituality and prayers? Anything, but not to become a Jewish Cossack.
Chanting Slichot together in Sheikh Jarrah, the traditional prayers, and reading poems by Yehuda Amichai and Mahmoud Darwish in Arabic and in Hebrew, I felt far from being “resolute in wisdom.” This was an ambivalent, unfinished, broken, act. Last year remains unattoned for, and a new year begins, already full of violence, misery, injustice. For a moment, though, we prayed Amichai and Darwish together, we prayed to be able to listen and atone for what we have done.
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