Israelis didn't come out of the Yom Kippur War unscathed.

Can Israel Rest on Yom Kippur?

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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Yom Kippur is an ancient tradition. Leviticus commands Jews to "afflict their souls," which the Jewish tradition interpreted, millennia ago, as a day without water, without food, without sex, without washing -- a day during which all physical needs are put aside to allow focus on the spiritual, on the people we still hope to become. Jews have observed Yom Kippur for thousands of years, more or less in the same way, unaffected by the vicissitudes of Jewish history. For it is one of the few Jewish holidays utterly unconnected to a particular historical event.

Until recently, that is. In Israel, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 changed all that. Perhaps it's the enduring trauma of the fact that the Arabs chose the holiest Jewish day of the year to try to destroy the state that symbolized Jewish renewal after the Holocaust. Perhaps it was because Israel Defense Forces intelligence failed, and Israelis, priding themselves on the stunning victory of 1967, were suddenly robbed of their confidence and their sense of security. Whatever the reason, a holiday once entirely otherworldly is, in Israel, inseparable from war. On TV, radio and in print, we try to focus on spiritual cleansing and end up talking about war.

Israeli Jewish secularism is very different from American Jewish secularism. American Jews came to the shores of New York and discovered, quickly, that if they refused to work on the Sabbath, they would starve. They held on to what they could and accommodated where they had to. Over the generations, more and more drifted away, a complicated and much-discussed facet of American Jewish life.

Many secular Israelis, however, are the descendants of early 20th-century immigrants who left Europe long before it became genocidal, hoping to escape the oppressive and choking world of European Jewish religiosity. They sought to create a new Jew -- who would work the land instead of study Talmud, be bronzed instead of pale, freed of fear and able to defend himself. Israeli secularists didn't just drift away: They slammed the door and never looked back.

But contemporary observance of Yom Kippur in Israel indicates that matters are not quite that simple. One of the highlights of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy is the poem Unetaneh Tokef ("Let us tell the power"), with its famous lines (rendered here by Leonard Cohen) of "who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water, who will rest and who will wander." For decades, religious Israelis recited it as it had been for centuries, while secular Israelis, typically not in synagogue, mostly ignored it.

But then something cracked. Kibbutz Beit Hashita, a secular kibbutz in Israel's north that had written in a 1941 newsletter "There is no place among us for a debate about the existence of God or the belief in God. There is no disagreement among us about these matters," lost 11 sons in October 1973. Percentage-wise, it was more than any other Israeli town. The agony never abated.

In 1990, Yair Rosenblum, one of Israel's most popular song writers, came to the kibbutz for Yom Kippur. At their annual memorial ceremony, in that bastion of Jewish secularism, Rosenblum sang a new melody for Unetaneh Tokef he had composed for them. Modern, haunting, angry and compelling, the melody brought many of the stunned listeners (who could not believe that at their kibbutz, a prayer like that would be a centerpiece of the annual memorial) to tears. Against all their principles, they'd found some comfort in the words of the tradition they had abandoned.

Twenty-four years later, Rosenblum's melody (sung here by Rosenblum himself several years before his death) has caught on virtually everywhere. Even in many of the most traditional synagogues this year, it is the secular Rosenblum's melody, written for an atheist kibbutz, that is now sung.

Religious and secular, otherworldly and with memories of war -- the lines have now all been blurred. When the IDF put up a video of its cantor singing the prayer (replete with video of the war, photos of soldiers getting called up, children filling sandbags) it was in Rosenblum's melody. It is, in many ways, an odd video. A timeless poem coupled with video of tanks aflame. A religious masterpiece sung to images of a secular disaster.

It's odd, but understandable. At the core of Israel lies one central question: What should it mean to be a Jew today? We still don't know. Early Israeli secular pioneers advocated a "new" Jew. Religious Jews insisted that the "old" Jew was just fine. Yet for all their differences, this is a country in which their worldviews cannot help but speak to each other.

When peace seems ever more remote, when war in Israel spurs frightening anti-Semitism throughout Europe, the vulnerability that Yom Kippur is meant to evoke actually comes easily. Some secular Jews will turn to Unetaneh Tokef, and many religious Jews will sing it to a melody written for a bastion of secularism. It is, perhaps, the perfect indication of the Israeli sense that particularly given our uncertain future, Jews of all different sorts need one another desperately, and after this past summer, no less now than ever before.

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To contact the author on this story:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com