Occupy Kol Nidrei: Paperback Lev Shalem; a new-found appreciation for the Middle Ages; and how I learned to stop worrying and love English readings

If you’ve come here from the Jewniverse email that went out on 9.27.12, welcome!

Though the Jewniverse thing directed you here, I highly recommend just going straight over to my new blog, davidamwilensky.com. Everything from this blog, including this very post, is there too!

Keep in mind that this photo was taken close to the center of the circle so you're only seeing about a fifth of the crowd here.

As you may recall, I went to the Kol Nidrei service organized by Jewschool founder and “social media activist” Dan Sieradski at Occupy Wall Street. (So did my mom, by the way.) There are many articles and blog posts out there that you can read about the service (including my blog post for the Forward, which was the most read article on their sit the day it went up and remained one of the most emailed articles on their site for several days; and which was reposted by Haaretz).

But there’s only one play-by-play, complete with exhaustive notes on liturgical minutiae. Here it is.

Machzorim:

  • The Rabbinical Assembly? I never thought I’d see the day, but when it suddenly looked like hundreds (estimates have ranged from 700-1000; personally, I think it’s closer to 1000) would show up to this service, the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism was the only organization that stepped up and helped out with some machzorim.
  • I want one! I, of course, brought my copy of Machzor Lev Shalem with me, but was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that the machzorim the RA was donating were these slim little paperback MLS “Kol Nidrei and Evening Service of Yom Kippur” booklets. At the end we were told we could keep them. I perked right up and this Hadar fellow I was sitting next to kindly offered me hers, which you can see above, next to my regular old MLS.
  • Are there more of these? Since I’m going to continue to use MLS as my primary machzor for the foreseeable future it would be great if there was a full set of these booklets. According to the inside front cover, they’re drafts that were piloted in a few Conservative shuls prior the full publication of MLS. By the end of YK, my arms were so tired from holding up the brick that is MLS that I found myself in dire need of a slimmer machzor option so I’m hoping I come across more of these someday.
  • It really is a machzor for all: When the RA was generating a lot of press for MLS, a little over a year ago, one note they hit over and over again was that MLS wasn’t merely a Conservative machzor, but that it was meant to be used by a much wider audience. It’s not only remarkable that they offered these up but that they were accepted. There was a time when establishment was establishment and anti-establishment was anti-establishment and never the twain shall meet. Today, the adherents of the traditional egalitarian style that is popular all over the non-denominational, non-establishment Jewish world has no problem using a Conservative machzor if it fits their needs.

Demographics: So there were a lot people, as I’ve mentioned. But one thing that’s been interesting about Occupy Wall Street and about this service in particular is the diversity of the crowd. As the protest has gone on, the protesters have gotten more generationally and racially diverse; and of course we’ve all heard about how ideologically diverse they are. The Jews at the service were no different. (Though they were not overly racially diverse, as you might imagine, I’m pretty sure I spotted the Black Jewish rapper Y-Love.) So in terms of age diversity, my mother was not the only person beyond her 30s there. And in terms of ideological diversity, I saw Jews I know from all over the denominational and ritual spectrum. (Except for the anti-mixed seating crowd, though I suspect there may have been some of them there as well.)

The service itself:

Shlichei tzibur: Getzel Davis (left), Sarah Wolf (center) and Avi Fox-Rosen (far right)

  • Our fearless leaders: Though organized by Sieradski, the service was led by the intrepid trio pictured above:
    • Getzel Davis: Getzel is a friend of mine from Limmud NY, though we see each other from time to time elsewhere now. He hosted me last year when I visited Hebrew College in Boston, where he is a fourth-year rabbinical student. Much more on Getzel later in the post.
    • Sarah Wolf: Sarah, a first-year rabbinical student at JTS here in New York, approached me before the service, wondering why she recognized me. We couldn’t figure it out and then it hit her:  “Oh! Are you David Wilensky?” Apparently, she’s a fan of this blog.
    • Avi Fox-Rosen: Avi is a musician. I encountered him once before when he was a presenter at Limmud NY a couple of years ago. He chanted Kol Nidrei itself when the time came.

Sieradski and one of the leaders, Avi Fox-Rosen, attempt to create aisles. You can imagine how well that worked out.

  • Mic check! You may have read or heard about “the people’s mic,” the un-amplified method that the Occupy Wall Street protesters use to communicate to large crowds. The individual initiating it shouts, “Mic check!” The crowd responds in unison, “Mic check!” Repeat. The announcement is then delivered in short phrases, each one shouted back by the crowd before the speaker moves on to the next phrase. If the crowd is exceedingly large, the phrase may get repeated in multiple waves, taking two or three repetitions to reach the members of the crowd farthest from the speaker. This method was used throughout the service for page numbers, readings, etc.

Sieradski about an hour and a half before the service

  • Why are we here? Imagine the following all shouted by Sieradski in the call-and-response format described above:
    • Shatz: “Mic check!”
    • Kahal: “Mic check!”
    • Shatz: “Welcome to Kol Nidrei at Occupy Wall Street!”
    • Kahal: “Welcome to Kol Nidrei etc…”
    • “The reason we’re here is the prophet Isaiah!”
    • “Who requires not only a fast from food!”
    • [Some explanation of Isaiah's thing about "This is not the fast that I require, etc...]
    • “What better way to observe Yom Kippur!?”
    • “Than in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street!?”
    • And so forth.
  • Fun with page numbers: We began on page 204. Kind of. We began on page 204 of the full MLS that I brought with me. Since many others had it with them as well and since there were also 100 copies of that MLS Kol Nidrei booklet present, page numbers were announced for both. It was announced–via the shout-and-response method–that H=P+201, where H is the page number of the full hardcover edition of and P is the page number of the paperback booklet. This led to a lot of people’s mic announcements along the lines of the following, which never ceased to elicit a titter of giggles from the entire congregation:
    • Shatz: “We are beginning on page three!”
    • Kahal: “We are beginning on page three!”
    • Shatz: “And also on page 204!”
    • Kahal: “And also on page 204!”
  • Or Zarua: And begin on page 3/204 we did, with the chanting of “Or zarua latzadik ulyishrei-lev simchah” (Ps. 97:11) a few times. There was some clapping.
  • Three times, with hand signals: “Bishivah shel malah uvishivah shel matah… im ha’avaryanim” is traditionally recited thrice. To keep the crowd together, the shatz trio each waved a finger in the air as we said it the first time, two fingers the second time and three the third time. This was done a couple other times throughout the service for bits that are meant to be repeated a certain number of times.
  • QUESTION: Why am I enjoying this English? Getzel led us in some English corresponding to the bit we had just recited three times–call-and-response, of course. (In fact, from here on out you should assume that any English I mention was shouted out and then shouted back by the crowd.) I played along and had a series of thoughts about it while we shout-prayed in English:
    1. This is nice.
    2. Wait, why am I enjoying this?
    3. Am I actually participating in this English?
    4. Whatever, David, just go with it.
  • ANSWER: Because it was lively as all get-out! In services, you may find yourself saying two sorts of things out loud. You may sing or chant some Hebrew or you may recite some English. And by recite I mean mumble un-enthusiastically. And by mumble un-enthusiastically, I mean space out. But this was a whole other thing. Everyone paid perfect, rapt attention to all of the English we did throughout the service. And when they responded, they responded with vigor! I can’t believe I shouted English in the middle of a service the way I did during Kol Nidrei this year.
  • Kol Nidrei, once more with feeling: We said Kol Nidrei three times, each time building on the energy of the previous time.
    1. Avi Fox-Rosen chanted Kol Nidrei through once. I was very close to the middle of the circle and found him only vaguely audible.
    2. Getzel and Sarah joined AFR for the second time through. (All three of them waving two fingers in the air.) The crowd got in on the action a little bit this time.
    3. By the third time, the whole crowd has heard the tune at least once. Some of us already know it, while I suspect some haven’t been to shul in years, but the excitement of this service seems to be jostling free the memory of this melody somewhere in the recesses of their brains. The third time through, Kol Nidrei is loud and proud.
  • “We renounce publicly…” Sieradski chimes in, announcing, “We renounce publicly…” (I’ll say!) followed by a list of things that we renounce.
  • Let the service speak for itself: I didn’t write down any of the things we were renouncing, but my notes at this point say, “He’s getting v. political. Unsettlingly. Let this event & the words of KN speak for themselves.”
  • Minutiae from my notes: We’re now on page 205/4. From my notes:
    • “Venislach lechol-adat… lechol ha’am bishgagah” once
    • Then “[Moses prayed:] ‘As befits Your abundant love… from Egypt until now.’ And there it further says:”
    • Then “Adonai replied, ‘I have forgiven, as you have asked.'”
    • Then “Selach-na la’avon ha’am… ve’ad-henah. Vesham ne’emar:”
    • Then Shehechiyanu to that sing-songy tune
  • The crowd that leads itself: AFR was going to lead Ps. 92 (“Mizmor shir leyom haShabbat. Tov lehodot…”) silently, but after a moment of that, a cluster of musically-inclined members of the congregation about a third of the way around the circle from my position spontaneously began a tune, which quickly caught on.
  • Tzadik Katamar: When we reached this part of Ps. 92, Getzel led us singing through the end of the psalm to the tune that I generally refer to as “that one we did at the lay-led services when I was a kid.”
  • Maariv: For the most part, Maariv was conducted in the mostly-silent-but-with-a-few-lines-of-nusach fashion.
  • Triumphant Mi Chamocha: Mi Chamocha was sung so triumphantly, you’d have thought there were walls of water to our left and right.
  • “Chapter, verse!” My mother (who used to shout “Chapter, verse!” in services when I was a kid anytime the page number of the Torah reading was announced rather than the chapter and verse because she always brought a different edition with her) took the opportunity of the silent Hashkiveinu to stand up from the folding beach chair she brought with and ask Getzel to kindly inform us not only of page numbers, but of where in the service we were because lots of people had different machzorim with them. (She had Eit Ratzon with her.)
  • Veshamru: The Carlebach tune
  • “We are not praying to the building!” The plaza across the street from Zuccotti Park where we had the service happened to be bordered on the east by the Brown Brothers Harriman building. Before Chatzi Kaddish, AFR announced:
    • “We are not praying to the building!”
    • “We are praying to the east!”
    • “Toward Jerusalem!”
    • “Not for political reasons!” (The crowd snickers.)
    • “For spiritual ones!”
  • The 24-hour drum circle: Occupy Wall Street’s 24-hour drum circle has become (in)famous. Around the time I reached the first Uvechen in the silent Amidah, I was suddenly very aware of its muddy volume leaking across the street, over the falafel trucks that bordered us to the west and all the way to where I was standing in the middle of the Kol Nidrei crowd.
  • The crowd is leading itself again: We were brought out of our individual Amidahs not by any of the shlichei tzibur, but by an Oseh Shalom that sprung up somewhere within the crowd.
  • The Tower of Babel: According to my notes, it was around this time that I noticed that the building before us seemed to disappear into the night sky. I couldn’t see its top! Later, I snapped the picture above.
  • The man who prayed with his feet: A quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel (who marched with MLK in Selma and later famously said, “I felt like my feet were praying”) was featured atop the photocopied supplement we used later in the service. He also put in an appearance here (page 225/24, at this point).
  • A.J. Heschel on “body and soul”: Sarah led us in reading a comment in the margin in the upper left corner of the page, quoting him on the subject of “body and soul”: “Originally the holy (kadosh) meant that which is set apart, isolated, segregated. In Jewish piety it assumed a new meaning, denoting a quality that is involved, immersed in common and earthly endeavors; carried primarily by individual, private, simple deeds rather than public ceremonies”
  • Yeah, but how much more public could this particular ceremony get? That may sound counter to the very spirit of this particular venue for Kol Nidrei, but wait until we get to Aleinu to pass judgement on the inclusion of this quotation.
  • “Haneshamah lach…” Then Sarah and AFR led us in signing “Haneshamah lach vehaguf po’olach, chusah al amalach.”
  • Really loving those 13 attributes: No matter how long it’s been since the last time you went to a Yom Kippur service, there’s one tune you will never dislodge from your brain: “Adonai, Adonai, El rachum vechanun, etc.” So the crowd was understandably jazzed to sing the 13 attributes through by the time we got to them on 229/28.
  • Animals and stuff: Looking back, I can’t imagine myself enthusiastic about this reading at all, but my notes indicate that we enthusiastically shout-and-response-ed our way through this English reading featuring a bunch of biblical animal imagery (upper left corner of 233/32).
  • Medieval-style! I also have a note here that says, “Throughout, no need for machzor for C&R.” My point being, I assume, that there was something delightfully medieval about the way this service was conducted. When most communities owned only one copy of the siddur, services were conducted in a very different fashion. With all of this shouting back and forth and with only maybe a quarter of the crowd actually holding a machzor, I sensed a little window back to that.
  • For example: AFR led us in the series of four verses that begins “Shema koleinu” and ends “kochenu al-ta’azvenu.” Normally, each verse is chanted once by the shatz and then repeated by the kahal. He tried the first verse, “Shema koleinu, Adonai Eloheinu, chus verachem aleinu, vekabel berachamim uvratzon et-tefilatenu.” The crowd–once again, most of whom don’t have machzorim–attempted to repeat it, but we petered out about halfway through.
  • So he changes it up: For the remaining three verses, he broke it up. For example, the next verse, “Hashivenu Adonai elecha venashuvah, chadesh yamenu kekedem,” was not chanted and then repeated in its entirety. Instead AFR chanted, “Hashiveinu Adonai elecha venashuvah,” and the crowd repeated it back with gusto. Then he chanted the rest of the verse and we repeated. And so on for the remaining two verses of the section.
  • Anu Amecha: This super-catchy piyut was sung with a lot excitement. When we ran out of words and lapsed into a nigun, it was out of control!
  • Al Cheit: “We will now list some of our sins!” Getzel shouted before we worked through Al Cheit in English. There’s something be said for standing outside in public with a crowd shouting your sins at full volume. I felt a chill when we shouted, “We have sinned against you by defrauding others.”
  • Israel and Palestine: Then we read an interpretive version of Al Cheit by Stew Albert and Judy Gumbo. As interpretive readings go, it’s a pretty good and it was an excellent choice for this particular occasion. One line reads, “We have sinned… by not defending Israel.” I didn’t have a copy of the reading, which was some people had in the photocopied packets that were handed out before the service. So I didn’t know what the next line was and got a little concerned. Then we shouted, “…by not defending Palestine.” Nice choice, I thought.
  • The sermon: The sermon kicked the whole thing up a notch or two. I did a whole post a while ago about the sermon, which I highly recommend you read in its entirety. The high point of it was this:
    • “Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for worshiping the golden calf!”
    • “What is the golden calf!?”
    • “It is the essence of idol worship!”
    • “It is the fallacy that gold is God!”
  • Kaddish Shalem: Chanted by AFR to the fast tune that has the super-emphatic amens
  • Aleinu: Instead of just chanting Aleinu, the service finally reached a point where it was just a tad too goofy for me. Aleinu, it was explained, means “it is upon us” so people were invited to shout out something they were going to take upon themselves in the coming year. Then, of course, each of these things were shouted back by the crowd. And then we would all shout, “Aleinu!” and wait for the next person to start hollering out whatever vague ethical something-or-the-other they were going to uphold in 5772. Some of these were insanely long and impossible to repeat back accurately. Topics covered in the various personal Aleinus included:
    • Palestine
    • The environment
    • Racism
    • Shopping locally
    • Feeding the hungry
    • Cancelling Bank of America accounts
    • Raising kids to have these values
    • Praying with Christians and Muslims (whether they like it or not?)
    • And so forth, seemingly interminably
  • Vene’emar: That rather special “Aleinu” over, we sang the last line of Aleinu and then moved on.
  • The end.
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8 responses to “Occupy Kol Nidrei: Paperback Lev Shalem; a new-found appreciation for the Middle Ages; and how I learned to stop worrying and love English readings

  1. Nice post. Can you expand a little on this?
    Today, the adherents of the traditional egalitarian style that is popular all over the non-denominational, non-establishment Jewish world has no problem using a Conservative machzor if it fits their needs.

  2. OK, I have to admit, I was pretty surprised by this comment. First, I was surprised by your statement that

    I’m going to continue to use MLS as my primary machzor for the foreseeable future it would be great if there was a full set of these booklets.

    because I thought you preferred machzorim with transliteration, such as Machzor Eit Ratzon or On Wings of Awe. (Although I should point out that ArtScroll produces a fine set of transliterated machzorim: the Seif Edition.) I understood your argument to be that those machzorim were more inclusive, by bringing those who do not daven in Hebrew regularly — and I have to say that I was quite sympathetic to that argument. Now there are things I like and don’t like about MLS, but I think that it is fundamentally a Conservative machzor — not Reform by bringing a wider audience nor Orthodox (there are several places it falls short of the minimum Orthodox requirements.)

    In terms of machzorim, I prefer the Soloveitchik machzorim — even though they have ugly typesetting and the not-always-elegant ArtScroll translation. The extensive notes drawn from Soloveitchik’s shiurim make them worthwhile, in my opinion. I’m afraid I’m not nearly as sanguine about the Koren Mesorat Harav Siddur, which I feel is much less philosophical and deep.

  3. Second I was surprised by your preference for booklets as opposed to a full machzor. I guess I don’t think MLS is that heavy (in terms of weight) compared with the machzorim I am used to. Further, MLS combines a lot of sections (for example, repeating common recitations of the Amidah). Pamphlets would seem to be both more expensive for congregations as well as somewhat pointless for congregants who daven Maariv, Shacharis, Musaf, Minchah, and Neilah. Certainly, if one is going to daven more than just Kol NIdrei, I don’t see the advantage of the pamphlets.

  4. @Theophrastus I can understand why David likes the small booklets instead of the full Machzor. Personally I’d rather carry around a series of small light booklets then a single large heavy volume. The booklets are much more comfortable to hold one handed for long periods of time . I don’t know about you but i hate having sore wrists after a service. Then again I may be a bit biased since I always use a travel size siddur.

  5. Also I’d imagine that the booklets would be for personal use and not Congregational adoption.

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