Hiya Judge: On Dancing Yom Kippur

Gershom Gorenberg

Once, on our way between Bombay and Chaing Rai in the Golden Triangle, Myra and I spent Yom Kippur with the friendly Jews of Bangkok. Most of them had their roots in Iran or in points further east, from Herat through Samarkand. There was also at least one family from Beirut and Aleppo.

It was our first time spending that long day of prayer and fasting with mizrahi Jews. We were used to the mournful melodies of  Ashkenazim on the edge of bursting into tears.  In Bangkok, standing before heavily judgment, the Jews rocked. “Hatanu lefanekha, rahem aleinu” – “We have sinned before you, have mercy on us,” they belted out, as if no thought could be happier.

When we arrived back in Jerusalem, somewhere just before Hanukkah, we told our friend Eric, who’d been housesitting our micro-apartment, about the difference between Ashkenazim and mizrahim on the day of divine judgment.

Eric is a defense attorney. He thought for about 3 seconds and said, “See, these two guys have their day in court. The first one is led in, sees the judge, and thinks, ‘Oy, what I’ve done,’ and wails, “Judge, have mercy, mercy.

“The other come comes in and looks around. ‘That’s the judge what let me off last year!’ he says, and then loud and happy, “Hiya, Yer Honor!”

The instant allegory perfectly describes two opposing ways of thinking about the human relationship with God as judge.  Like my friend Bob, I certainly believe in the value of examining one’s deeds (the Hebrew word for “to pray” literally means “to judge oneself”) in order to change them. But I still prefer the joy of Sephardi prayers on the High Holy Days, the essentially positive view of the past and the future. If my own congregation, Yedidya, ever decided to send its sundry hazanim (prayer leaders) off for lessons in the traditional synagogue melodies of Baghdad and Aleppo, I’d walk to Yom Kippur services with a dance step.

Anyway, I mentioned this story a week or so ago to a friend learned in Jewish history. “That’s the difference between people whose neighbors opposed their existence and people who were accepted as – even if second class – members of society.” (This isn’t an exact quote. I was sipping cinammon coffee at the time, not taking notes.)

I wouldn’t want to attribute all the differences in Ashkenazi and Sephardi culture to the gap between how Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East related to Jews. But I’d guess that it is one key reason. As I noted last year in an article on anti-gentile prayers that worked their way into Jewish liturgy and that should be removed:

Hebrew University historian Israel Yuval says that traditional liturgical attacks “are always against Christianity,” and are found in Ashkenazi prayers, not Sephardi ones. The rage reflects theological battles with Christianity, which claimed the Bible as its own and argued that Jews suffered in exile because God had ended the covenant with them. The Jewish response was a stress on “vengeful redemption”—looking forward to a conclusion of history in which the power relations were reversed, the Christians destroyed.

While there were ups and downs in Jewish-gentile relations in both the Christian and the Islamic worlds, Jewish liturgy itself bears testimony that Jews felt that their lives were far more precarious among the Christians. Recently, in the midst of contemporary nonsense about the “Clash of Civilizations,” some rightwing Jews have made a habit of arguing that things were as bad or worse for Jews among the Muslims. The psychological record of the prayerbook says otherwise.

A few days ago, for reasons I can’t remember at the moment, Myra mentioned to me the recent fad of older Jews from Iraqi Kurdistan taking organized tours to the old country, entering through Turkey. One old woman who lives on a moshav on the Lebanon border has talked on the radio about how she’s gone back twice, ignoring the security warnings from the Israeli government. The Kurdish Jews like to see the places where they grew up and the Muslim friends they left behind. I suggested that this was more evidence that the lachrymose view of Jewish history in Muslim lands was questionable.

“Jews also take old-country trips to Eastern Europe,” my wife wisely pointed out.

She’s right. But I hear a lot less about such trips focusing on hugging old friends, and more about the brutal ending of the Jewish story in Hungary or Ukraine.

In subtle, indirect ways, it seems, our sense of divine mercy is shaped in part by the amount of human warmth we’ve met.

Sing it, now, with feeling, with a trill, get up and dance: Hatanu lefanekha, rahem aleinu!

15 thoughts on “Hiya Judge: On Dancing Yom Kippur”

  1. Love the seasonal insights and musings. Re: cheerier pray-ers in the east… Asia and the Indian subcontinent, as examples. I experience this same disposition among many I know from those places (who happen to be Buddhist, Hindu, or secular forms of each). Could it be a free-floating, equal opportunity warmth? Winston Churchill once said about architecture, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Same might be said of our societies or where (and with whom) we live.

    Gmar tov!

  2. When I am blessed to be able to do so, I spend Yom Kippur on retreat at Elat Chayyim, a transdenominational Jewish retreat center which used to be in the Catskills and is now in northern Connecticut. (Anyone who’s curious can read more about that at my blog; I’ve posted about it several times.) What first blew me away about the observance of Y”K there is that while it is solemn, and long, and intense, it is also joyful. There is laughter. There are drums. There is dancing. Because this is the day when we are closest to God, when the distance between transcendence and immanence is shortest, and even though we’re recounting our shortcomings with (hopefully) full awareness of how far we need to grow, we’re also in God’s presence. How could we do anything but dance? It’s a remarkable shift in consciousness, and it’s changed my relationship with Yom Kippur in what I hope is a forever kind of way.

    This seems like a good time to thank you for your postings over the year since the last Yamim Nora’im. I enjoy your writing and your perspectives so much, and I am so grateful to have your voice as part of the Jewish blogosphere. Wishing you a g’mar chatimah tovah.

  3. If European Jewish history had ended in 1938, instead of 1945, you would also read about Ashkenazic Jews going to Poland, Ukraine, etc.–even, or perhaps especially, Germany–to hug their friends.

  4. Gershom-

    I’ve been lurking here for a while, and love your site and shout-out to my liturgy on Kippur. But on the score of anti-Goy liturgy being solely the province of Ashkenazim, you are quite off-base. You are, however, correct in your assertion that most anti-Goy liturgy arose in response to Christianity.

    1) You may remember that Sepharadim of every stripe say the words “Adonai ‘imakhem!” and respond “Yebharekhekha Adonai!” before saying the berakhot of the Torah once called up for an ‘alia. This quote from Ruth was instituted in Geonic times because it was commonplace for Christians to greet folk like so: “Yebharekhekha B’shem Ha’ab HaBen weRuakh Haqqodesh.” (Source for this is one of Sherira or Se’adya Gaon’s manuscripts, which I no longer have on me.)

    2) The “Berikh Shemeh”, a paragraph from the Zohar related to Perashath Wayaq’hel, said, if I recall correctly, by both Sepharadim and Ashkenazim after opening the Hekhal (or Aron, if you prefer) says explicitly: “La ‘al enash rahhissnah, weLah ‘al Bar Elahin samikhna.” The Zohar was produced in Christian Spain, so on that score – that anti-goy liturgy was produced mostly under the Christian milieu

    3) The original text of ‘Alenu, the prayer attributed to the Amorah, Rab, which is said in the 3amida of the High Holidays musaf and at the conclusion of the daily prayer everyday, has the phrase ‘SheHem Mishtahhawim LaHebhel waRiq, uMithpalelim l’El Loh Yoshi’ah’. This was actually stripped by the Ashkenazim to avoid Christian ire. It is unclear to me whether Rab was referring specifically to Christianity here, but that would not be a bad guess.

    Full disclosure: I was born and raised in the Aleppian-Jewish community in Brooklyn, with grandparents, uncles, and numerous relations still living in my parents hometown of Istanbul – so I know a thing or two about going back to the old country in the positive light which you mentioned, as well as a little about the development of different liturgies. (Brooklyn and Istanbul truly are like night and day.)

    Commenter David Bernstein I suspect is correct. It is a shame history turned out the way it did. But attempts to paint Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewish history with the same brush should be condemned, and I am glad that Gershom has done so.

  5. Also, how is it that you have candelighting times for Hobbiton?

    This sentence was not complete:
    The Zohar was produced in Christian Spain, so on that score – that anti-goy liturgy was produced mostly under the Christian milieu [- you are still correct.]


  6. I should also add – Kippur is my favorite holiday of the year, and not least because of the melodies (though the promise of constant renewal is certainly part of it.)

  7. I love the Ashkenazi Yom Kippur melodies, but am very interesting to hear about the difference between them and their Mizrahi counterparts. I hope to experience it someday. I wonder how the melodies of the European Sephardim would compare to both.

    I don’t know about the conclusion drawn from the prayerbook differences. I just can’t even fathom the amount of the Jews that left Arab countries. Entire communites just left, in the range of 90% and above left. With the threat of Hitler and Stalin, that many Jews didn’t leave Europe, not even close. Of course, the British Mandate of Palestine then wasn’t quite as easy to get to as the newly-formed Israel when the Jews left Arab countries.
    How do you explain this? Was is just a recent deterioration? Israel could’ve had an airlift from the US, but few would have come. Even today, with organization trying to promote it, few Zionist, Orthodox American Jews are going.
    Religious fervor does not seem to explain the vast exodus of Jews from Arab countries.
    From accounts I’ve read, it might explain the Yemenite Jews, yet in Yemen, as I understand it, Jews were treated worse than in other Arab countries were certainly less (secularly) educated and integrated.
    Jewish immigrants from Iraq and Morocco often bemoaned their loss of status, going from white-collar to blue-collar jobs.
    Also, I note, not all of the Jews from Arab countries came to Israel, some went elsewhere. Many Jews from North African countries went to France, as those countries had formerly been French colonies.

  8. I’m a big fan of this blog and generally find Gershom Gorenberg’s observations and analysis of both religious and political matters generally to be dead-on.

    However, I really have to take issue with his characterization of the Ashkenazi nusach/niggunim on Yom Kippur. Perhaps it’s different in Israel (have not spent Yamim Noraim there in many years), but here in New England, the niggunim are a mix of solemn and joyous, even triumphal. But really never sad.

    Think of the popular (at least in North America) niggun for Ein Kitzva or Mar’eh Kohen. These are quite fun nigunnim. Or think of the traditional niggunim for Hayom Te’atzmenu, Ki Anu Am’cha or even Ashamnu-Bagadnu (the vidduy/confession!!). These simply are not sad tunes. I would argue that even the traditional tune for Unetaneh Tokef is not more subdued than sad. I could go on and on. The only real exception to this pattern is the Kol Nidrei, which could indeed be said to be a mournful tune. So, I just think the premise for this blog is way off.

  9. Megan – I would argue that it was a recent deterioration, and would trace it back the 19th Century. Certainly Zionism and Zionist activities pissed off many Arabs and contributed to this deterioration, even if a minority of Sephardic/Mizrahi Jewry was even involved. Some have put forward that the Mossad had a hand in pushing these communities to leave (I have not seen the documents and do not know how much of this is speculation); my personal opinion is that the determinant factor was the fact that the Jewish State was so nearby and easily accessible, and rules put in place so ominous that going to Israel was the natural choice. Of course, a few European countries and to a lesser extent, the US (where many Syrian and Turkish Jews had immigrated to in the 1920s and 30s) was another popular destination.
    Many Jews, meanwhile, did not know or wish to believe in the threat of Stalin and Hitler, and if they did, had lived with Christian harassment for centuries in any case, and never left. Not so Jews of Arab Lands, for which harassment from Arabs (dhimmi status notwithstanding) was a relatively new phenomenon: Arab Nationalism was a force to be reckoned with in the first half of the 20th Century. This nationalism explicitly excluded Jews from the definition of ‘Arab’ – hitherto a greyish area. Old timers in my community still remember being called ‘Walad Arab’ – ‘Arab offspring’ – in the meantime, suggesting that despite the corrosive efforts of the leaders of pan-Arabism, kinship between Arab Jewry and Arabs at large used to be quite real. Alas for the machinations of history and the changing times…

  10. This account by Mr Farhi makes me long to return to the good old days in Baghdad. Off course, it was the occupation of 1967 that set off the spark for the Farhoud of 1941

    By the end of May 1941, my family was enjoying our evenings up on the roof since the heat of the summer months was upon us. My sisters and I usually played with dominoes. Since I was only three and Yedida was only four, we didn’t understand the real rules of playing with the tiles, though Berta did, who was six. Instead, we laid them out in long lines and pretended we were building railroads like our father did. But for the last few nights, our sense of play was muted by worried looks between our parents. Father had also told us yesterday that we couldn’t go out and play; we had to stay in our rooms. We had wanted to go with Mother to buy treats for Shavuot but couldn’t. In fact, Mother had not left the house and neither had Father gone to work. We thought it was because of our holiday coming. We would all go to the synagogue, but we had not done that either. We had only eaten a light meal, and Father had offered prayers. So, on the evening of June 1st, I wondered why we had celebrated a holiday alone and why no one wanted to play with me. We were put to bed early but none of us could sleep. We watched the stars as usual, trying to make patterns from the shapes of their lights. It was then that Berta sat up in her bed and said, “Father, why is the sky orange down by the center of the city?”

    Father and Mother immediately jumped out of their beds and stood near the edge of the roof, facing the downtown area of Baghdad. We all got up to stand with them and look. Normally, Father would have told us to get back to our beds, but he didn’t tonight. His eyes were transfixed on the glow emanating from the city’s central district where the Jewish and Muslim communities abutted each other. As we watched the glow crept toward us, spreading from block to block. On the night wind, we caught a faint wailing cry welling up from where we saw the orange light. Mixed with that wail were crashes and booms. Mother began to weep, and Father’s jaw was clenched tight as he held onto Mother. As we watched the orange glow expand, we could see smoke against the growing light and an occasional lick of flame. The smell of burning wood was on the wind. Father gathered Berta, Yedida, and me, along with my baby brother Yeftah, who was already there whimpering, into our parent’s big bed with him and Mother. We clung to each other as we watched the fires and destruction creep closer hour by hour into the long night.

    “That must be Sooq Ha-rage and Sooq Le-sfa-feer,” Father said, “the markets.”

    After awhile, we could hear screams and distinct curses. “They’ve come to Bab-el-shar-gee and Taht-el-takya,” Father whispered. These were wealthy Jewish neighborhoods. Father held us tighter and began to pray softly. I was afraid, but I wasn’t sure of what exactly. All I could see was that this orange glow was alive and growing and it brought pain. I squeezed closer to my father and my sisters. Around two o’clock, crashing and pounding stopped and all we could hear was the soft wail the seemed to come from everywhere now. After a little while, my parents’ muscles seemed to relax and I fell asleep. I woke the next morning to screams and renewed crashing in the streets nearby. The destruction in the city was clearly visible now. We could see people struggling with men wielding knives. We saw Jews on faraway rooftops jumping from their roofs to their Arab neighbors’ roofs. Their neighbors quickly ushered them inside where they could hide.

    The British army, which had now taken control of Iraq by then, remained just outside of Baghdad and was totally disengaged allowing the atrocities against the Jews to continue unabated.

    The wave of destruction continued until about mid-afternoon. It was then that the Kurdish division of the military, ordered by the Regent, moved into the city, sweeping the neighborhoods, rounding up those responsible for this pogrom. By about two o’clock, Kurdish troops were beginning to take up posts in front of prominent Jewish homes. One soldier was stationed in front of our own door.


    By Sunday afternoon, there were 180 Jews dead, 240 children orphaned, and 2,120 wounded. Countless numbers of women and girls had been raped and kidnapped. Babies had been disemboweled before their parents’ eyes. Rioters broke into marked Jewish-owned stores, especially those on Shorja Street, looting and destroying. Two thousand homes had been plundered and 2,375 shops had been looted. The property damage was estimated at £3 to £3.5 million. The Jews weren’t permitted to bury their dead themselves. The dead were collected by the government, and eventually, all were buried in one mass grave. The Iraqi government severed all diplomatic ties with Germany. Al-Sab’awi was arrested and hanged on July 20,1941. But no apology was ever made to the Jews who had been terrorized. Neither was any restitution given for property loss or recompense for loss of life.

    Hussayni fled to Berlin, where he met with Hitler himself, and continued to incite Arabs to persecute Jews, only returning to the Middle East after World War II. Later, during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, it was he who would call on the Palestinians to leave their homes and join the Arab forces “to re-conquer it back and finish the Jews.”

    This marked the genesis of the Palestinian refugee saga.

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