‘Gold Is Not God': Yom Kippur at Occupied Wall Street

“Think we’ll get arrested at synagogue tonight?” I texted M., as I dressed for Kol Nidre services at Occupied Wall Street the night of Friday, October 7th. Boy, that wasn’t a question you heard every day.

Ordinarily, you wouldn’t find me anywhere near a synagogue or a demonstration – at least not in the last few years – but put them together, and I was intrigued.

How does one prepare for a sacred ritual service that is also a political demonstration? Can these two intentions cohabitate in the same space? Does it cheapen or commodify the ritual to use it for political means; or is it the highest expression of that ritual, making it alive and relevant to the present day? Why does religious ceremony, at its heart, look so similar to a protest (and theater, for that matter) – create a space, set intentions, enact a ritual and see what happens? What would happen?

The High Holydays – especially Rosh Hashanah and its ten-days-later counterpart, Yom Kippur – are the Christmas and Easter of Judaism. Even the Jews who never go to synagogue, like myself, will sometimes go on the high holydays, or at least feel guilty for staying home. Kol Nidre is the evening service that kicks off Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. There is no fun to be had on Yom Kippur: no food, no drink, no sex, and lots and lots of praying. You wear white and hit yourself in the chest for your “sins”. For me Yom Kippur is a dizzy memory of low blood sugar, even fainting a few years running, until I finally declared it inhumane and quit fasting. Let’s just say I have tremendous ambivalence about institutionalized Judaism.

To bend Thoreau a bit, I distrust any religion that requires new (or girly) clothes. Fortunately, since we would be holding services outside in 50-degree weather, I figured my usual pants were okay. I wanted to be able to run. I was terrified of getting arrested.

I had been to only a few protests since being entrapped and arrested by the NYPD at the 2004 Republican National Convention as part of an 1800+ person roundup of demonstrators and passersby. Many of us were housed at Pier 57, a bus garage full of soot and fumes. At Occupy Wall Street, the NYPD were employing the same scare tactics: They would surround a protest, with their bodies or orange netting or both, and then – with no warning, no call to disperse, no freedom to leave – the cops would lock up everyone present. Let’s just say I didn’t have it in me to go through this again.

But I wanted to go. I was tired of being frightened out of my right to assemble. I was tired of feeling like a “bad” Jew, if such a thing is even possible. Finally, holding Yom Kippur services at Occupied Wall Street seemed, in some ways, the perfect place for a holiday that is essentially about reminding ourselves that we are the 99%. The facebook invitation, written by Daniel Sieradski, says it best:

This Friday night begins Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. On this day, Jews around the world refrain from all physical pleasures (eating, bathing and screwing, to name a few), and devote themselves to prayer and supplication, begging the Lord forgiveness of their sins so that they may be written into the Book of Life.

But is fasting and beating our chests really the best we can do to redeem ourselves?

As lower Manhattan erupts with thousands of protesters taking a stand against economic injustice, the words of the prophet Isaiah resonate more truthfully and appropriately than ever:

“Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward.”

Thus rather than spending the holiday safe and warm in our cozy synagogues thinking abstractly about human suffering, perhaps we should truly afflict ourselves and undertake the fast of Isaiah, by joining the demonstrators in Zuccotti Park, and holding our Yom Kippur services there amongst the oppressed, hungry, poor and naked.

Not to be cliché, but as Rabbi Hillel the Elder said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

Ten minutes before the 7 pm service, Zuccotti Park was a carnival of overstimulation, sounds zinging off the surrounding metallic buildings, drums and cheering echoing from one end of the park, and the buzz of talking everywhere. The block-long park was packed with hundreds of people, many of them the scruffy early twenties boys that hung around the Indy office ten years ago (do they age?) – people holding up signs, sprawled on the ground, dishing out or slurping up food, reading the Occupied Wall Street Journal, sitting behind tables, sorting recycling, talking animatedly (some in Spanish) – but nothing that looked like a prayer gathering.

The other people looking for the service were easy to pick out: They looked much too clean to have been at the park very long, their hair shiny and combed, their white shirts glowing as if under black light. Two college girls with tiny overplucked eyebrows latched on to me as a guide; I led us over to the information booth and found out that services were back across Broadway. That’s how cacophanous it was: so much going on you could miss a thousand people gathered across the street.

Policemen in blue uniforms, and their bosses in white shirts, massed at the corner as we waited to cross Broadway. A car idled in the road as a girl handed a puppy to the driver through the window. This outraged one of the white shirts. “Keep it movin’, keep it movin!” he barked, pounding on the hood. The girl looked scared and instead got in the car with the puppy, and they drove off. The light changed and we crossed through the sea of policemen, exchanging wary glances.

Once across the street, services were easy to spot. A line of food carts, ironically, blocked off the fasting prayergoers from Broadway. About a thousand people sat in a circle, fifteen rings of people around the central speakers – Sarah Wolf, Avi Fox-Rosen and Getzel Davis. (I am deliberately calling them “speakers” rather than “leaders.” Easily a tangent: natural authority vs. institutionalized authority, giving them credit for their guidance of the group while affirming the collectivity of the event, et cetera.) They wore headlamps to light up their prayerbooks, which put me in mind of camping, making the service that much more unreal. They turned as they spoke, a lazy Susan of prayer, trying to engage every sector of the crowd.

My new friends and I ducked behind the big red statue — 25 policemen were just standing there in their blue uniforms, arms crossed, big clubs dangling from their belts. Quickly we skittered back around to the front of the statue. I spied Jess, an old protest acquaintance, and squeezed in behind her; she was sharing her prayerbook with Davi, another queer Jewish acquaintance. I knew them from different places, different New York eras of my life; while it didn’t surprise me that they knew each other, it made me glad that I’d trusted my community and shown up, instead of staying home for lack of a protest “buddy”. [Edit: Turns out they had just met. Proves my point even more.]

The crowd was mostly – but not all – Ashkenazi, largely people in their 20s and 30s but again not all, many older folks among us. The clothing issue was moot because most people had on their coats. Many wore tallises or fringed scarves.

At first I had trouble following the service. It was hard to hear, before I got the hang of the “people’s mic”. Sound equipment is not allowed, so speakers say a few words at a time and the listeners repeat it back through the crowd, like an echo: DIY amplification. I liked not being miked — made it less performative (“the rabbi show”) and more interactive. You actually had to pay attention to what was being said, because you had to pass it on, and in doing so got a moment to consider how you felt about the message. Also, you were needed by the people behind you who couldn’t hear. You were connected.

This was especially powerful in Davis’ sermon. Imagine this being passed back through an echo circle:

According to our myth (“According to our myth”), Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for worshipping the golden calf. What is the golden calf? It is the essence of idol worship. It the fallacy that gold is G!d. How do we become forgiven for worshiping gold?

You know friends, it is hard not to worship gold, or power, or any of the other idols that our society shoves down our throats. I believe that this is why the Torah tells us that there is something else created in the image of G!d.

Us.

Imagine this moving through the crowd, a verbal wave: Us.

Us.

Us.

Instead of the traditional Aleinu, people shouted out resolutions for the coming year. “I love this prayer,” I said. “I wanted to sing it.” “Me too,” said a girl beside me. “Let’s sing.” So we did. It was oddly moving, our voices singing the old words amidst all that chaos, both of us knowing the tune without having to check in.

All the up-and-down of the service is a pain in the tuchus when you are in a shul with an actual seat, but even more of a pain (and hard on the knees!) when you are sitting in a huge crowd on concrete, and have to fight for your two inches of space every time you sit down again.

Overall very surreal: the sacred day, the huge crowd, the scowling cops, the familiar prayers. The smell of felafel wafted over from the food carts; the parade of protesters went by a couple times, replete with whistles, bells and instruments.

Strangest, perhaps, to say the Shma with all those people. It felt too public for such a sacred one-with-the-deity prayer. I had to cover my eyes, and even then it felt strange, too intimate to share, almost a violation.

Afterwards was the usual schmoozing, my favorite part of both shul and demonstrations. Lots of queer Jews and theater people, the JFREJ crowd. Some people seemed exhausted and overwhelmed; some had energy to spare, singing “Lo Yisa Goy” along with a guitar player, god bless hippie Jews. I gave and got a lot of hugs, shana tova, shana tova. A few of the Rude Mechanicals invited me to eat but I wanted to go home, clear out some space, burn some incense, look at the trees.

While the setting of Occupied Wall Street was in some ways beautifully in keeping with the spirit of Yom Kippur, in other ways it felt fundamentally at odds. At one point I turned to the girl beside me and said it felt blasphemous to have the service with all these buildings around. “How can you pray to God when you can’t even see the trees, let alone the moon?”

But that’s probably another story.

Amen.

(For Jamie, who said, “I can’t wait to read it!”)

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