“It was different with Papa. He celebrated all the major holidays — Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Pesach — and he loved telling me Bible stories, but religion didn’t have a very important place in his life. Once, during Mama’s illness, I asked him if he believed in God. He gazed at me with that tender look, a look that spoke only of the powerlessness of love, and said, “You know, Sara, God doesn’t need us to believe in him. All he wants is for us to act as if he were there.”
— from Paths of Desire, a novel by Emmanuel Kattan
Yom Kippur is one of the two Jewish holidays that have become well-known tropes for the universal human experience in secular European and American art. Passover is the other one — specifically the seder meal, which includes so many symbols that can be interpreted ecumenically to talk about hunger, freedom, welcoming the stranger, telling the story of the Exodus to the children, justice and so on. But while the seder is about reaching out to include others (“all who are hungry, come and eat”), Yom Kippur is about introspection, repentance, forgiveness and redemption.
Parts of the liturgy are beautiful and have inspired some moving art, especially poetry and music. There’s Max Bruch’s gorgeous cello and orchestra composition of Kol Nidre, the Aramaic recitation that opens the evening service of Yom Kippur. (My mother was a huge fan of Jacqueline Du Pre’s interpretation.) Bruch was a Protestant who died in the 1920s, but the Nazis banned all his music anyway, for his sin of having composed a work based on a Jewish theme.
In more recent popular music, songs based on the liturgy include greats like Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire,” referring to the part of the service where congregants sing the prayer derived from the tradition that on Yom Kippur it’s written in the Book of Life: Who will die this year and how — by fire, by sword, by water..? Barbra Streisand’s Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) is a straight rendition of one of the high points in the liturgy, rather than an interpretation like Cohen’s. In the clip below, Cohen explains in a 1979 interview how the Hebrew prayer inspired “Who By Fire.”
In the movies, Kol Nidre is a trope for redemption via the return...Read More