28 September 2020

‘These things do I remember
and my heart is grieved! How the
arrogant have devoured our people!’

Day of Atonement (ca 1907) by Isidor Kaufmann (1853-1921)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is a day a fasting and prayer, when Jews ask for forgiveness for their sins over the past year as well as being a time for reflection and thinking of others.

Yom Kippur officially started with Kol Nidre at sundown last night, and ends at sundown this evening (28 September). Yom Kippur concludes the Ten Days of Awe, which began on Rosh Hashanah.

The greetings exchanged during Yom Kippur include גמר חתימה טובה (G’mar Hatimah Tovah), ‘May you be sealed for a good year [in the Book of Life]’, or צוֹם קַל (Tzom Kal), ‘Have an easy fast.’

Rabbi Dovid Rosenfield says, ‘Yom Kippur is not about personal resolutions and private reflection. It is about standing up and talking to God. It is about apologising, about re-establishing our connection with our Creator. We must tell God who we are, where we are holding in life, and what we know needs improvement.’

This is a day of repentance, fasting and solemn reflection, and its liturgy includes a tribute to ancient sages who died under Roman rule. Many people mark Yom Kippur with a recitation of the martyrdom of 10 ancient Jewish sages. In recent decades, similar liturgies and poems have been written to commemorate victims of pogroms in Europe and of the Holocaust.

Many synagogues in the US today will also be commemorating 11 new martyrs, who were murdered two years ago on Yom Kippur, 27 October 2018, when a gunman killed 11 worshipers from three congregations as they gathered for worship and Torah study at the Tree of Life or Or L’Simcha synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh.

They were from three congregations — Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life. Some were saying a prayer of thanksgiving and praise known as the Kaddish d’Rabbanan, others were opening the siddur or prayer book.

It was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history, and in the weeks before the US presidential election it remains a reminder of how racism and anti-semitism have seen exponential increases in Trump’s America.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, of New Light Congregation, who survived the Pittsburgh attack, paid tribute to the 11 murdered victims by writing a new poem last year, ‘Eileh Ezkarah for Pittsburgh.

Rabbi Perlman wrote the poem in Hebrew and in English, with help from other rabbis and Hebrew experts, Tamar Elad-Applebaum, Martin Cohen and Tovi Admon. The Hebrew title comes from the opening words, ‘These things do I remember’:

These things do I remember and my heart is grieved!
How the arrogant have devoured our people!
Who would believe that in our day there would be no intervention
For the eleven slaughtered from our holy community?

What occurred in our Holy Sanctuary that day
As the enemy came to tread upon our holy space
His wielding sword to break apart our memories from that place
The sanctified recalled a few that remained —

Among some their faces turned to one another before ‘Kaddish d’Rabbanan’
Among some their faces turned toward the door to welcome new faces
Among some they quickly assisted their friends in finding
their place in the Siddur
Among some those engaged in Torah Study
And among some who were in the kitchen preparing the next meal.

And to the eleven, God spoke in a whisper
‘The time has arrived to sanctify My Name in public ...’
For in the future their children and congregations would remember
That we are Sanctifiers of Life who come to live.
We buried our bodies
And upon them we wept
And even so, this did not break us.

As long as this breath is within us
We ponder the world you created for us
And evening and morning, each and every day,
We gather and we cry out as one:

Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.

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