More than any other holiday, the Day of Atonement is a marker of American Jews’ devotion to their heritage and traditions in the face of the assimilatory pull of the broader culture. Other holidays with a mass following, such as Passover and Hanukkah, are joyous occasions that combine family celebration with readily accessible messages of social justice. Yom Kippur is a time for solitary reflection about the fallibility of the individual and the terrors of finite existence in an infinite universe.
The holiday’s main practice, going a day without food or drink, only compounds the spiritual terror with physical discomfort. For many Jews, the discomfort is magnified by the experience of synagogue, an unfamiliar place where impenetrable messages are intoned in an incomprehensible language.
That the vast majority of American Jews choose to observe Yom Kippur year after year, despite the impediments, is a testament to the enduring strength of the Jewish spirit and the pluck of the individual Jews who carry the torch in each generation.
That’s especially true of those in the public eye who choose to embrace Judaism, sending a message around the world that Judaism is a culture worth embracing. At a time when attacks on Jews and Judaism have entered the cultural mainstream, the actions of celebrities like Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Shawn Green and even the non-Jewish pop singer Madonna, embracing Jewish practice for all to see, are something to be celebrated.
It’s sad that so many of those who seek out their heritage at this time each year find their return to synagogue greeted with a sanctimonious rebuke rather than a welcoming embrace. Far too many of the community’s leaders lose sight of the miracle of Jewish return and use the opportunity of Yom Kippur, when they have their largest audience of the year, to alienate their listeners by asking them where they were last month and how much money they want to donate. It’s a miracle that so many keep coming back.