Reflections and Not-Rants on Yom Kippur, 5782 (2021)

Here are some thoughts, a few hours after Kol Nidre.

I am not a “religious” Jewish person, any more, per se, but I do take Yom Kippur to heart, and this is the second year that I have “attended” Yom Kippur services, alone (with feline presence), in my house, on Zoom or YouTube, during a pandemic.

I spent nearly all day being wished a “happy Yom Kippur” or a “happy holiest of days.” As I explained to some people, with kindness, this experience is a bit like being wished a “happy” Good Friday.

My lay explanation is this one: Yom Kippur is a day of solemnity and reflection; it is about hoping that your soul will get to live another year in your body. It’s some serious moral stuff, yes, but needn’t be about punitive energy or some all-knowing and all-powerful being who has it in for people. On the contrary: the higher power(s) associated with Yom Kippur, as I understand this power/energy or these powers/energies (it/her/him/them), is/are not punitive but compassionate; it is/they are serious while savvy, and it has/they have a sense of humor.

The spirit of Yom Kippur, in my view, is to be accountable in the wake of regret, moving past mere remorse in order to be more ethical in the future.

If I hurt anyone’s feelings on Yom Kippur—for example, by pointing out, however patiently, that I had been wished a “happy Yom Kippur,” yet again, and why this wasn’t working in the ways that some not-Jewish people may have intended—that would be (or have been) more than ironic and hardly okay. It would not be “okay” during any day of the year, however. Like all Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur started at sundown. It concludes tomorrow, at sundown. That’s why I said would be or have been.

Simultaneously, while hurting anyone’s feelings on Yom Kippur is, would be, or would have been a colossal bummer, I understand my own frustrations—including and “even” on Yom Kippur, a day, as noted, of accountability. As a Jew or a Jewish person, I am expected to nearly “automatically” be mindful of every Christian tradition, in a Christian landscape—like, for example, “just knowing” that one never wishes someone a “happy” Good Friday. This is the definition of hegemony, a fancy word for commonsense which is really about privilege and access—and, yes, dominance.

In contrast, almost no one who is not Jewish considers that maybe saying “happy” Yom Kippur is not the thing to say, and, instead of asking me (although some folx did—which I appreciated, truly), I am the one who has to give “secular grace,” be patient, take the high road, know what people meant, and all of that stuff.

Yom Kippur is about humility and accountability, yes, but, yes, too, it is frustrating to me that with so much access to information, very few (not-Jewish) people seem to care about this matter or know anything about Yom Kippur.

Jews of Color who by necessity negotiate the daily vicissitudes of racism, white supremacy, and anti-blackness, and who are then subjected to the well-meaning greeting, “happy Yom Kippur,” are obviously facing experiences and feelings that I do not endure personally, and can only understand in allyship, as someone who is a white Ashkenazi Jew with white privilege.

Among Jews of Color and Jews not of Color are of course Queer, Trans, nonbinary, food insecure, unhoused, impoverished, Disabled, and many other folx who hold multiple identities, who are often marginalized, who are at times privileged (wealthy, well-resourced, and so on), and who are nuanced combinations of each and all—people living lives that are contextual and complicated, across a wide berth of differences.

When folx (again) wished me a “happy Yom Kippur,” this year, I gave them secular grace, and thanked them for the intention and the thoughts, sometimes noting that it is like saying “happy Good Friday,” if such an illustration might have helped. But, as I have been wished “happy Yom Kippur” by a number of people who had this conversation with me, last year, and, in some cases, for many (sequential) years prior, and who forgot, I guess, because their “happy Yom Kippur” was repeated, I am left with some questions.

How, except because of so-called hegemony, are any of these repeated behaviors okay? Why am I likely going to be understood as the self-righteous, “obnoxious” person or “the bad guy,” for trying to point out the patterns—even if I do so in a measured way, and with patience, respect, and kindness? Why is it okay to label me (as) self-righteous, then, let alone (as) annoying, and/or didactic, but every Jew I know KNOWS NEVER to say “happy Good Friday”? (caps here for emphasis, not yelling)

Yom Kippur is a day of reflections, and here are some of mine, without hubris or expectations.

As a young Orthodox Jewish child of an age who could fast (12 and above, in the case of my gender attribution, at the time), I was raised not to write, use electricity, eat, drink, or work, in any way, on Yom Kippur. In contrast, the Yom Kippur of the great majority of my adulthood has indeed been about reflection, but not about these other “traditional” requirements. I will fast, this year, and not work, but I will not refrain from writing or using electricity. And, I am writing, right now, of course. Writing is part of my reflective experience.

I atone for my mistakes, but not for my humanity.

And, well, please do not wish me (or probably any other Jews you may know) a well-meaning happy Yom Kippur—tomorrow, or next year.

Published by:

Diane R. Wiener

Diane R. Wiener is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses (Nine Mile Press, 2018), the poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks (Finishing Line Press, 2021), and the forthcoming poetry chapbook, The Golem Returns (swallow::tale press, 2022). Her poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina Review, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest, Diagrams Sketched on the Wind, Jason’s Connection, the Kalonopia Collective’s 2021 Disability Pride Anthology, and elsewhere. Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe, Mollyhouse, The Abstract Elephant Magazine, and Pop the Culture Pill. Her flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness; short fiction is published in A Coup of Owls. After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed as the magazine’s Assistant Editor. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute (Syracuse University College of Law); she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. Diane is the Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature, housed at Syracuse University.

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