Yom Kippur September 23, 2015
Walking by Luther Memorial Church in Chicago on Yom Kippur, one might have heard soft traditional Yom Kippur melodies, a faint call-and-response, echoes of a sermon. One might have heard prayers. And inside the church, talk of Gaza could be heard, a subversive retelling of the image of the “gates closing,” and public mourning for Palestinian lives lost in the name of Zionism. One would not know, passing by, that this was a non-Zionist space, a place where Jews are coming together to separate Judaism from Zionism, and to be “out” together on a Jewish holiday.
This year, on a crisp, sunny fall day, Tzedek Chicago, the new non-Zionist congregation held its first Yom Kippur service. I recognized some people from the left-wing activist community and from the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, where Rabbi Brant Rosen, and many others, left last year. I saw a lot of people in their twenties and thirties. Some came alone. In addition to being a non-Zionist congregation, Tzedek Chicago also is not a heteronormative Jewish congregation. In the Conservative Zionist synagogue I was raised in, I never saw a lot of single twenty- and thirty-somethings, and mostly saw older people and couples with their kids. The unspoken expectation in my family and in the congregation was that we attended synagogue growing up, took a break during college and a few post-college years, then returned married with a spouse and young children. As the gates were closing, the adults who joined the synagogue–for their kids’ sake–got their money’s worth as the children were called to the bimah in the last minutes of the holiday. Shofars were blown in response to “tekiah,” and the kids danced around as the gates finally closed. The repetition of the “gates closing” motif towards the end of Yom Kippur was always a daunting and scary part of the day for me. I never wanted to dance on the bimah as the gates closed. As a child, I was terrified of this image, and clung to my father’s tzitzit as it became dusk. And I would obsess over “who shall live and who shall die,” as the gates closed, not knowing if I’d be in or out. Now, years later, I receive ominous text messages from my mother–“May you be inscribed in the book of life”–from her friend’s house who hosted the break-fast after dark.
In his guest sermon, Jay Stanton took “the gates are closing” conceit and turned it on its head. Stanton implores God to keep the gates open:
Instead of reading it as a lament about the gates closing: Open the gate for us even though the gate is closing because a day turns. Today will pass, the sun will come and set, before it does, please let us enter the gates. Otherwise we’ll be stuck outside–guilty. Instead of reading it that way, let us read it as an exhortation to a Powerful Boss holed up in a gated estate. Ne’ilah is a sit-in, and this is our chant: Keep the gate open for us even at the imposed curfew time, when the day turns to night. We don’t care that today will pass, that the sun comes and goes, we will enter the gates!
Rather than expecting the gates to close as we stand by passively, Stanton suggests an alternative. His sermon was a political call, an urgent plea, for God to keep the gates to the gated community–the contemporary Jewish settlement–open after dark. “We need fewer arbitrary injustices,” Stanton says. “Life outcomes for teenage boys in Chicago depend on whether the boy is Black. In the West Bank, they depend on whether the boy is Palestinian.” Instead of accepting that the the gates are closing, Stanton urges us: “Tomorrow night, let’s occupy Heaven.”
Most of the mourning I’ve done as a Zionist turned anti-Zionist has been alone. My transition was private, and I continue to grieve the loss of family and friends as I become an anti-Zionist. And though I crave spaces where I can be fully myself, I became more accustomed to being a secret anti-Zionist in a Zionist congregation than one of many in a non-Zionist space. This will take some getting used to; I am not quite sure yet how to do it. I haven’t worshiped that much with other people. Privately, I’ll say my prayers to God asking to keep all the different gates open that shut people out. And to open the gates for real this time–the checkpoints and walls and roads–that shut out Palestinians from their own land.
During the break, people went outside the church into the sunny fall air. The air felt cool and crisp. Some gathered in groups in front of the church. I saw an old friend; we took a walk, the leaves crunched underneath our feet. There was a level of comfort in walking with an old friend on Yom Kippur that almost made it seem like the congregation had always been there. But our talk about Palestine and the occupation didn’t have to be in secret and we didn’t have to stop talking about it as we re-entered the church for the afternoon service.
Later in the day, Max Blumenthal spoke about his book, The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza. He took us on a journey through the horrors he documented while in Gaza during last summer’s war. He told the stories that don’t make it into the New York Times and other mainstream media–bombed schools and homes, families without electricity and rationed water, high-rises bombed after a token warning by Israel, Israeli soldiers mocking those they kill. Blumenthal made it clear he was not there to offer a positive, hopeful spin at the end. “Israel is becoming Judea,” he said, emphasizing that one of Israel’s goals is to “consolidate settler colonialism.”
After his talk, Rabbi Rosen led us in reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish for Palestinian lives lost in Gaza. Palestinians don’t need a holiday to be reminded that the gates have closed on them.
Towards the end of the day, I noticed a man sitting alone, wearing a keffiyeh as his tallit. I’d seen him before. I remember noticing when his facial expressions changed. He used to look like a stoic businessman, supportive of Israel at all costs. I’d been at activist meetings with him and heard his story. As he learned more about what was really happening in Palestine, he looked like he was in shock–duped by those he loved in his Zionist upbringing and outraged at learning what Israel was doing. The shock has now settled down and fuels his activism. His face looks sad and ready to act.
Now there is a place for him to wear what he wants in a Jewish congregation. He stood briefly, quietly recited the prayer for donning his keffiyeh as Blumenthal concluded, “Who will be the next Jew to kill for a myth?”