Modern Atonement or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chazzanus
We’re very excited to bring to you a special guest post from the lovely Avi Fox-Rosen. A friend of mine, Avi Fox-Rosen is a working guitarist, and singer songwriter who lives in Brooklyn, NY. Avi has released several albums of original music, most recently “Welcome to the Show.” He works with many new Yiddish projects; Benjy Fox-Rosen, Yiddish Princess, Basya Schechter, and Adrienne Cooper. He’s a frequent collaborator with radical street puppeteer Jenny Romaine, and is part of a collaborative organizing group that creates an annual radical queer Purim happening in NYC that draw over 500 people. Friend Avi on Facebook, and check out avifoxrosen.com
My name is Avi Fox-Rosen. I was one of the leaders of the Kol Nidre service at Occupy Wall Street, and given the seasonal Jewish inclination to come clean, I want to start this reflection with a clean slate.
I’ll say a little bit about who I am, and who I’m not.
I am incredibly ambivalent about my Jewishness. Which is to say I love being Jewish with all my heart… Which is also to say I am incredibly impatient with the hypocrisies of Jewish communities, Jewish rituals, and, yes, Jews ourselves. Let me tell you a little more about my hypocrisies.
Although I’m literate enough in traditional Jewish liturgy to lead many services, including a Kol Nidre service, I’m not a practicing religious Jew. I have many friends and family with rabbinic aspirations, but nope, I have none. I cannot think of any more torturous way to spend my life (zay gezint to all those who choose that path).
I’m an atheist… or rather, I believe that the God that may or may not exist does not suffer from being aware of our human affairs, and does not take sides in human bickering.
Ironically, I do spend a significant portion of my professional life working in religious Jewish contexts, teaching Jewish children how to sing out to the God I don’t particularly believe in. I often instruct kids in the subtleties of liturgical music, or musically accompany rabbis and cantors as they earnestly offer their teachings and prayers for their communities.
I do this because it helps me make rent and support what I really love to do. I’m a performing artist, a musician and singer. I love to play, and I love to participate in and observe SPECTACLE! I love being on stage, and to energize communities through performance.
I have left leaning politics, perhaps inching towards the radical left. But I’m not especially an activist. I am an often absent, though dues-paying member of Jews For Racial and Economic Justice. I align myself with the Queer community, and I’m bisexual. I am a gentrifier, despite my ideals; the housing market in Brooklyn is such that the only apartments I can afford are in neighborhoods where my presence changes the demographic. I vote, though I’m not really involved in local politics.
I have another confession…
I love chazzanus, which is traditional cantorial a capella singing.
Yom Kippur, particularly Kol Nidre, which is the service that marks the start of the 25 hour fast, can be a dreadful time for me most years. Why? It should be a highlight, because if I go to synagogue the music can be AMAZING! The melodies are somber, and celebratory, and terrifying, and haunting, and lovely, and tear-jerking. But, because I have a good sense of what I like in chazzanus, I also have a good sense of when something is lacking. And sadly, the places with the best chazzanus have the worst politics. And the places with great politics do NOT HAVE REAL CHAZZANUS!!!! They might have nice music, they might have creative arrangements, but almost as a rule, liberal Jewish congregations don’t offer strong traditional chazzanus.
You see, its tough to be a Jewish atheist on the radical queer left with a soft spot for traditional chazzanus. You follow me?
A little over a week ago, Dan Sieradski posted to Facebook, inquiring if anyone would be interested in participating in a Kol Nidre service at Occupy Wall Street. Immediately, I knew I wanted to be involved. I contacted Dan, and signed myself up. Not out of religious devotion or piety, but out of a fascination with this moment. Dan’s call for help to make this service happen ticked all of the right boxes for me: a massive public spectacle using traditional Jewish liturgy as a framing device for social commentary and foment; an opportunity to publicly ally a segment of the Jewish left with the OWS protests; a place to sing the CHAZZANUS I want to hear, with the POLITICS that I aspire to. GEVALT!!
Dan Sieradski was the point person for all parts of this service, and he continues to coordinate the ongoing Occupy Judaism movement at OWS. He coordinated those of us who volunteered to lead, and I along with Sarah Wolf and Getzel Davis, with Yosef Goldman and Ezra Weinberg advising, planned the service. Who are those people? Rabbis and rabbis in training, wonderful folks one and all. Me? Well… by now you kinda know me.
Even as an atheist, as a non observant Jew, I am a sucker for ritual.
Kol Nidre is a helluva powerful ritual moment, and Kol Nidre at OWS did not disappoint.
On the night of Friday October 7th, we began to gather across the street from the main occupation in Zuccotti Park, in the square in front of The Brown Brothers Harriman building. Hundreds of Jews of different ages, observances, beliefs, economic backgrounds, racial identities, and gender identities assembled. We were also joined by non-Jews who wanted to gather in solidarity, and many intrigued onlookers passing by the square. Definitely my kind of scene.
We organized ourselves in concentric circles, with those of us facilitating in the center. The service is a blur, but I hope I will always remember the sensation of standing in the center of this collection of people striving to create new meaning within this Yom Kippur ritual. Looking out to see friends, allies, strangers, and even people with whom I’ve had significant disagreements, I was filled with pride and a sense of good luck to serve as a conduit for this community.
Yet the meaning of the words we say in Kol Nidre prayer is remarkably out of touch with the sense of ritual centrality. The central meaning can be roughly translated as, “We hereby retract any vows that we should make in the year to come. Any promises we should make are all null and void.” This renunciation traditionally applies to spiritual vows and internal promises, not business or interpersonal agreements.
I understand the literal meaning of the words of Kol Nidre. I understand elements of its historical context. In the past, Jews considered vows and promises to be of supreme spiritual importance. Neglecting a vow effectively neglects an oath to God, so in the past it would have been important to nullify any vows you might make. Also in a context of forced conversions and inquisitions, this pre-emptive nullification makes sense. A Jewish man (yes, in the past, this applied exclusively to men) nullifies his future acceptance of Christ as his Lord and savior, and can walk out of his inquisition alive and spiritually intact.
But the prayer has never made sense to me in my contemporary context. I want to affirm my agency. I want to affirm that I can make and keep my promises. Preemptively renouncing my promises, even just the spiritual ones, seems to undermine my credibility more than anything else.
But this year, for the first time, I found a positive meaning in the words of Kol Nidre. This year as I said the words and prayed on behalf of my community, my intention was as such: “I hereby revoke the promises I tacitly make, the social contracts I am entered into without my control, understanding, or consent”.
In my mind, what was I revoking for this year to come?
I was revoking the existing structures of government, of wealth, of exploitation, sexism, racism, classism, and colonialism. Every “ism” that I do not understand, but that I may fall prey to in this coming year, and that may lead to oppressing others.
This intent for Kol Nidre rejects the systems that fail me and my community, and implicitly commits me to educating myself, getting involved, and seeking JUSTICE for myself and those around me.
My community has been energized by this service. Many Jews on the left are out, protesting, advocating for what they feel is just.
At the same time, there has been an outpouring of anger against those of us who have found meaning in expressing our Jewishness as part of OWS, particularly from the Jewish right and traditionally observant. Their critique has merit. They say that Yom Kippur is traditionally a day of introspection, personal transformation. One retreats from the public sphere on Yom Kippur to focus on self betterment, and repairing a personal relationship with the divine. All you need to do is spend a couple hours on Facebook searching comments on Kol Nidre at OWS. You’ll see the split, and the anger from both sides.
As for me, I am amused and excited. On the one hand, I think it’s pretty funny that there are pictures of me wearing my grandfather’s kittel, and a kippa, and davening Kol Nidre all over the internet. As a performer, I spend a lot of time trying to get noticed for other types of performance… it’s funny to see these images get circulated. If you do an image search of my name, you’ll find quite a treasure trove of absurd performance moments and promo shots. And now, add to that, me in a kittel.
And, I’m excited. I keep going back to Occupy Wall Street. I’m excited to see the diversity of the movement growing, and the growing constellation of national and international outposts. I’m excited to see the reactionaries worrying. And I look forward to a year of real change.