Kol Nidre Moments Away

On Custom

Kol Nidre (Aramaic, kol nidhrē, “All vows”) is the opening prayer service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for the Jewish people. We begin our annual ritual of transformation by pleading for the cancellation of all vows which we failed to fulfill in the previous year.

Yom Kippur observance includes abstention from all rites of mortal maintenance- a fast not just from food but also water, tooth-brushing, bathing, even wearing leather. It is a collective ordeal, one that instills a waveform rhythm to the passing of a Jewish year.

In the lead up to the High Holy Days, the month-long run of festivals and observances that marks the new Jewish year, preparation occupies the month of Elul, the final month of the calendar. We make our apologies to family, community and friends, asking forgiveness on as many as three separate occasions if someone we have wronged is reluctant to absolve us. In Jewish custom, apologies to G-d alone can never suffice; one must beg penance directly of the party one has harmed, and then change the offending behavior forever.

The period of ten days between Rosh Ha’Shana, the new year, and Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe. We turn inward, reflect on our behavior throughout this past run of the cycle, and reconnect with high purpose and divinity. Then we arrive at the apex of the High Holy Days, Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. We atone together to the depths of our spirits.

We chant the confessionals of Yom Kippur together in community, one massive voice with putrid breath. All of the crimes for which we beg collective penance are phrased in the first-person plural: we have trespassed, we have spoken slander, we have taken bribes and dealt dishonestly. All of our misdeeds, against G-d and one another, are all of ours to share.

Yom Kippur ends with Neilah, the closing of the gates. In these final moments of reckoning, we beg the Almighty to inscribe our names in the Book of Life, that we may survive the coming year in good fortune and health. Then we emerge, weak and ravenous and clean, a clean year’s canvas rolling out ahead of us. A full year in which to go astray, before Elul returns to call us back again, to settle the account once more.

Liturgical Note

In this post, Hebrew text comes from Ashamnu, the short confessional, an alphabetical list of sins which we chant while pounding a fist against our hearts in regret. The audio is the supplicating refrain of Al Cheyt, the long confessional. It translates: “For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.”

Confessional

I am not ready for the sun to set.

Kol Nidre is coming to cloister me, weak and thirsty and alone. The usual ordeal in temple is tolerable, even refreshing. But alone, the 25 hours of fasting and revelling in shame are unbearable. Praying into a muted microphone, bowing my head before the grainy rectangle of a Zoom meeting, will I discover a changed heart within me?

I want to hope, but I can see my intentions for the year ahead, and I know that I am not ready to change.

All that I do wrong, I do in the name of all my people.


עָוִֽינוּ We have sinned deliberately.

It was wrong at the outset, to accept the attentions of a married man.

But I excused myself from the account, telling myself that because he’s been cheating for decades, because he would be cheating with or without me, my involvement hardly made a difference.

“I didn’t turn him out. We met on Seeking Arrangement. I didn’t seduce him. Didn’t convince him to cheat.” That’s what I would say, explaining my affair to any friend who raised an eyebrow.

But now it is clear, beyond any measure– I did turn him out. I have convinced him to cheat on his wife on a deeper level, one that he never believed possible. I did seduce him after all– seduced him into falling in love with me when all he wanted was to get a little ass on the side once in a while.

I cannot claim surprise at how its gone. I did this on purpose. I wanted the love, and so I turned my eyes away from the inevitable harm I was creating. He came to me for sexual release and I captured him, swaddled him in empathy and care and admiration until he opened like a rose, meeting himself as if for the first time.

תָּעִֽינוּ We have gone astray; תִּעְתָּֽעְנוּ We have led others astray.

I have loved the parts of him that no one before me has even seen. Now that his lonely inner sanctum has known the presence of another human spirit, how could he ever close himself back up? Now that his secrets have been held, why would he ever want to be alone with them again?

Now I begin to see that these best parts of me are weapons. My love, my care, everything in me that is whole and pure and earnest– all are fatal drugs that I have made no effort to contain.

טָפַֽלְנוּ שֶֽׁקֶר We have added falsehood upon falsehood.

Now my beloved cheater takes new risks, a wilder gamble in every one of our exchanges. He hovers on the phone with me for hours in the basement with his wife growing ever more watchful in the rooms upstairs. In my name, he walks now ever closer to the precipice.

I have forced him into a split-screen reality, between two worlds of fear. He is just as anxious, now, over my safety as he’s ever been over the safety of his secrets. A sin once so neatly compartmentalized is now a fragile balance, the threat of losing the life with her that he cherishes counterweighted by the threat of losing me.

I once prided myself on my unwillingness, so staunch it seemed to me to be an inability, to lie.

Now I know that I am keenly capable of lying.

Even if I knew the woman whose husband I have bewitched, I couldn’t apologize to her. I would not confess– I would lie to her instead. I have no intention of stopping our affair, and I no longer have any illusions that I’m free of accountability. Even now, clear-eyed about the harm that I have wrought, I feel the guilt but have no desire to change.

The hour of atonement is collapsing down around me. What apology can I possibly offer, to heaven or to anyone down here?

If G-d wants my name for the Book of Life this year, surely her pen will have to waver.

Slamming on the Brakes at Our Intersection

This conversation is becoming a weekly ritual. Next month she turns thirty. I’ll be close behind. And we still can’t seem to make up our minds:

Do we want kids?

We trudge through the usual debate points and musings. “We’ll have to eat dinner at 5:30.” “We’ll be broke. We’ve barely got the money for the sperm.” “If we don’t, who will take care of us when we’re old?”

Then, suddenly, she calls up a different kind of trepidation. Says,

“You think I’ll make them hate being Jewish.”

Screeeech! Hit the brakes. Where did that come from?

“Baby,” I say. “No I don’t. You’ll be a wonderful Mom to Jewish kids. You already know the most important blessings…”

“No. I won’t be.” She pauses, considering something. “Maybe it’s just… it’s them having an identity that I won’t have. It’s too much. Being Black is hard enough, but Black AND Jewish… It’s a scary intersection.”

I blink. “It’s our intersection.”

She nods, slowly. “Yeah.”

She’s got a point. Would we be cursing our future children by deciding to have them? Is it fair, to put challenges onto our children that neither of us have faced ourselves?


On the coffee table in front of us a copy of The Color of Water by James McBride lies open, near its end. I have almost finished reading McBride’s telling of his mother’s story, in which she flees from her Orthodox Jewish family, marries a Black man, and raises twelve Black children. She overcomes the divide between the two communities that hold her life by destroying the Jew in herself, and never looking back. She changes her name, comes to Jesus, starts a church.

In my own family, I see the same pattern reflected. My eldest auntie married a Black man in the 1960’s and faced the rejection of her family and community for years. Though she never converted to a different religion, though she reconnected with my grandparents before I was born, she did not raise her son Jewish.

I remember my shock when I overheard her on the phone with her grown son in the week leading up to Rosh Hashana, explaining to him, “We eat apples and honey to celebrate a sweet new year.” My forty-year-old cousin didn’t know this simple tradition that was second nature to me by preschool?

One generation later, my aunt sends me pictures of her grandson lighting a menorah for Chanukah and reading picture books with Jewish themes. She is teaching him to take pride in his Jewish roots, and to understand that the history of the Jewish people is his history, too. But embracing one’s Jewish ancestry is not the same as being Jewish. I don’t know how my little cousin will identify as he grows. Will our traditions become his?

My wife and I have long since decided that, should we have children, we will raise them Jewish. They will be Black, of course. That part will most likely be determined by phenotype; it was never a subject of debate. We will raise our babies to be proud of their Blackness, to celebrate their heritage as descendants of the African diaspora. So why, I used to argue in the earlier days of our commitment, should the children we bring up together reflect her culture, her people, and not mine? Over time, she relented. It was a decision we reached before we married, and a condition of the marriage itself.

Our children will be free to reject Judaism if it does not suit them. Up to 70% of Jewish kids outside of the Orthodox community choose not to live a Jewish life when they grow up. And our babies will have more reason to reject the religion than does the average Jew. A wide majority Jewish communities in the US are white-dominated, and they harbor the same diseases as other white enclaves. It is unfortunately likely that the congregants of the synagogue where we enroll our children in Hebrew School will alienate them with racist comments, harassing them with questions like “how are you Jewish?” and “are you adopted?” Maybe our kids will want out of all Jewish spaces by the time they reach B’nai Mitzvah age at around 12, going through the sacred rite of passage into Jewish adulthood only if we force them, and withdrawing from the community immediately after.

And on the other side, how will their Black cousins and friends who are not Jewish shape their views of themselves? Will the same ugly conspiracies that have led me into tearful fights with my inlaws worm their way into my babies’ ears? Who will be the first to tell them that the Nazi Holocaust is a big lie, that their white mother is not a real Jew, that white Jews stole the religion from its Black rightful owners? Will it be family, a cousin they look up to? If those conspiracies don’t erode their sense of connection to their Jewishness, it may be that their Catholic elders will convince them that they are bound for hell until they come to Jesus.

None of these outcomes would surprise me. And there’s not a lot my wife or I could do to prevent them, or to protect our future children from the bone-deep confusion of belonging to two communities and feeling out-of-place in both– not a lot, beyond deciding not to have children at all.


For tonight, we run out of steam for the debate. She heads to bed, and I flop onto the couch to finish The Color of Water. In an afterward included for the 10th anniversary edition, McBride reflects on his family’s story with these words that feel uncannily apt, tonight:

I have met hundreds of mixed-race people of all types, and I’m happy to report that– guess what, folks– they’re happy, normal people! They’re finding a way. … The plain truth is that you’d have an easier time standing in the middle of the Mississippi River and requesting that it flow backward than to expect people of different races and backgrounds to stop loving each other, stop marrying each other, stop starting families, stop enjoying the dreams that love inspires. Love is unstoppable. It is our greatest weapon, a natural force, created by God.

James McBride, The Color of Water

I want to wake her. To rush into her quiet, shake her, tell her, “See! We won’t be failing our children by raising them. Our children can proud of who they are.”

“We will raise them in love and safety,” I want to tell her. “They’ll know a struggle that’s familiar to neither of us, it’s true. But they will know a peaceful home– they’ll know joy and healthiness that was also unfamiliar to us. We made it through our childhood hurts. They’ll make it through theirs, too.”

“Our children, our Black and Jewish children, if we have them, are gonna be okay.”

Instead, I resolve to show her in the morning. I tuck myself beside her, press my skin against her back, and join her sleep.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels