27 September 2020
On Kol Nidre, ‘we are like
wild grapes. We are
beautiful, and we are sour’
This evening is Kol Nidre, the evening that marks the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Its central themes are atonement and repentance. This holy day is observed traditionally with a day-long fast and intensive prayer, with many Jews often spending most of the day at synagogue services.
On her blog, ‘Velveteen Rabbi,’ Rabbi Rachel Barenblat says, ‘Our task on Yom Kippur is to wrestle with the radical idea that God has already forgiven our screw-ups – and we need to love ourselves enough to forgive our screw-ups, too. Because there is work to do, and we can’t do that work if we're still stuck on the old year’s failures.’
She first published this poem, ‘Kold Nidre,’ in What Stays, the second chapbook of her poems (Bennington Writing Seminars Alumni Chapbook Series, 2002.) Since then, it has been used in congregations and independent minyanim during Kol Nidre services.
My people break our promises publicly.
We stand and say ‘Hey, God, you know,
you can’t hold us to anything really,
I mean we’re creation, right?’ We declare
all vows, promises, and oaths of the year to come – all vows we’re too silent
or too weak or forgetful to uphold –
null and void in advance.
We say, ‘God, you’re listening, right?’ We say,
‘Don’t worry, God. We still feel guilt.’
We are like wild grapes.
We are beautiful, and we are sour.
Forgive us, and forgive
the stranger in our midst.
In Stolpce, my grandfather’s town,
some sons ran away, abandoned God.
Joined the army, splashed water
on bare faces, cooked pea soup with bacon.
Even they would gather once a year,
press their ears to the synagogue door,
whisper the Aramaic words and weep.
My grandmother’s house in Prague
had a Christmas tree up to the ceiling.
When children said she’d killed their God
she said, ‘That must have been the Polish Jews.’
For Kol Nidre she wore her new fur coat
and walked the cobbled promenade.
At eighty she still fasted, stood and swayed.
Once my Hebrew teacher stood a girl
in the trash because she wouldn’t learn.
I came home bursting with new sounds
and imitated his accent at the dinner table.
I argued with our yardman, a Jehovah’s Witness.
Later Eloisa chewed him out in Spanish:
didn’t he know what Jewish meant?
So that our vows may no longer be vows
we knock on our breasts with loose fists,
we speak an abecedarium of sins.
We know the disclaimer only lasts so long;
next year we’ll be back with our court
of three, holding scrolls, looking solemn.
We know how foolish we sound
but the melody is old, and makes us cry.
Kol Nidrei, sung by Cantor Angela Buchdahl at Central Synagogue, New York, on Friday 13 September 2013