Yom Kippur Isn’t Always Yom Kippur

On Language

By Philologos

Published October 08, 2008, issue of October 17, 2008.
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‘The age of rampant capitalism is over. If it’s Yom Kippur in America, it’s time for Israel to repent as well.” So, the other day, said high-ranking Israeli Labor Party member Avishai Braverman, a former economics professor who is now chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee.

To an American Jewish reader, such a sentence, while not incomprehensible, also might not make total sense. Yom Kippur is traditionally a day on which one prays to avoid a harsh fate, not one on which a harsh fate occurs. If the end of “the age of rampant capitalism” has already befallen the United States in recent weeks, why is it “Yom Kippur in America” now?

But an Israeli would understand Braverman’s remarks somewhat differently. Ever since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, with its surprise Syrian-Egyptian attack that took place on the Day of Atonement, “Yom Kippur” has taken on a secondary (and secular) meaning in Israel that is related to but distinct from its primary one. The Yom Kippur is still the Day of Atonement; a “Yom Kippur” in Israeli Hebrew is any unanticipated disaster that could have been averted had the necessary precautions been taken in time. As described by Knesset member Yossi Beilin, former head of the left-wing Meretz party, in his Hebrew book “My Alphabet: A Political Lexicon”:

Since 1973, ‘Yom Kippur’ has meant [for Israelis] the Yom Kippur War, and recourse to the term contains a warning against assuming things are as they seem to be, without challenging accepted assumptions…. The Six Day War [of 1967], in which I served as a soldier in the standing army… left me with a feeling of dizzying heights. The Yom Kippur War shattered all my illusions against the wall of reality…. It proved to me how phony was the confidence we all had that Israel was a world power and that the Arab states were unable to harm it…. Two major things happened to me during the war: I stopped being an observant Jew and I became a political ‘dove.’

Not all Israelis reacted to the 1973 war as Beilin did: Some turned to religion, and some became more hawkish in their views. Yet there was no one in Israel who was not deeply shaken by the war and its casualties, and angered by the arrogance of the politicians and generals who did nothing to prepare the country for it because they thought it could never happen. Since then, this meaning of “Yom Kippur” has entered the lexicon not just of Beilin, but of all Israelis. Over the years, I have noticed numerous references in the Israeli media to economic Yom Kippurs, political Yom Kippurs and, even after the failure of the polls to predict accurately the results of Israel’s March 2006 elections, to a “Yom Kippur of the pollsters.”

Yet such a trivialization of “Yom Kippur” has done nothing to assuage the painful memory of the trauma that the 1973 war was for Israel. As with Americans at the time of the Kennedy assassination (or Israelis at the time of the Rabin assassination), hardly an Israeli who was past childhood does not remember where he or she was when the sirens began to blare at 2 p.m. on October 6 of that year. So remote had the prospect of war seemed that morning that only because it was Yom Kippur did most Israelis not automatically assume that it was just some civil defense drill they had not heard about in advance, as it was inconceivable that such a procedure would be held on the most sacred day of the Jewish year. Whoever was home rushed to turn on the radio, which does not ordinarily broadcast on Yom Kippur, and heard the news that the Syrian and Egyptian armies had simultaneous attacked on two fronts. Many worshippers in synagogue had already suspected that hostilities were about to break out, since army couriers had been arriving all morning with call-ups for reservists who were attending services.

Indeed, as was observed in Israel at the time, it was, ironically, a stroke of good fortune that Egypt and Syria, through a failure of their own intelligence agencies, had scheduled the attack for Yom Kippur, the day on which practically every Israeli reservist was either at home or at prayers and quickly locatable, rather than for Rosh Hashanah, when many secular Israelis go on vacation. Had it been the 1973 Rosh Hashanah War, in which an outnumbered Israeli army was overwhelmed on all fronts, the initial days of the war would have been far worse.

Avishai Braverman’s “Yom Kippur in America” is thus a shorthand way of saying that America’s economic, financial and political system was as much surprised by a crisis it should have foreseen as the Israeli army was in 1973. Alas, there’s not much that Israeli “repentance” can do about it, since the credit meltdown is now rocking Israel’s economy like it is the rest of the globe’s. There are few of us this year who will not have it on our minds when we utter the words in the U’netaneh Tokef prayer: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many will pass from this world and how many will enter it, who will live and who will die… who will become poor and who will grow rich.”

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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