Today (12 October 2016), like any other day, I turned on my bedroom TV to watch "Morning Joe." And like any other day, I will not fast or pray. Both are customary activities on this Jewish "Day of Atonement."
I was a bit surprised to see Jewish Mark Halperin doing his usual work. Although I know nothing about his personal religious practices, I do know he is Jewish. Other Jews recognize his Jewish name, but perhaps non-Jews do not. It's not as obvious as Schwartz, Cohen or Katz.
Of course, names are not conclusive. Reagan's Secretary of State Caspar Weinberger was Episcopal. (His paternal grandparents converted from Judaism.)
CBS newsman Walter Cronkite—regarded by many as the most-trusted person in America—was widely assumed to be Jewish. Maybe it was because he was in the media, maybe because "Uncle Walter" was smart and personable, like so many Jews are.
His name certainly sounds Jewish. Walter told a story about taking a cab from his Manhattan apartment to the CBS building on Yom Kippur. The cabby, of course, recognized him; and berated the "King of the anchormen" for working on a highly holy day. Walter explained that he was not Jewish.
In 1965 Dodgers pitcher and Jew Sandy Koufax made history and provided a teaching moment for many rabbis by not pitching in a World Series game.
“By refusing to pitch that day, Koufax became inextricably linked with the American Jewish experience,” wrote author Jane Leavy in her Koufax biography in 2002. “He was the New Patriarch: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sandy. A moral exemplar, and single too! (Such a catch!)”
I used to hate Yom Kippur as a child. Not only did I have to wear a tie, but the B'nai Jacob service was even longer and more boring than Sabbath services. My parents said that in order to take the day off from school, we kids had to go to services. Having the day off from school was not a suitable reward for the agony.
I fasted between breakfast and lunch. My father skipped breakfast and lunch some years.
Pop's retail stores were open, with gentiles taking care of business. He explained: "People have religions. Businesses do not." (This was before ultra-Christian Hobby Lobby.)
My own business will function today. My Jewish employee will be praying at a synagogue (and will get paid for not working). I will answer phone calls and email, but there will be fewer of both than on a normal day. Some customers know AbleComm, Inc. is a Jew-owned business, but most customers and prospective customers do not. Observant Jews will probably not try to do business with me today. That's OK (but it hurts after doing little business on Columbus Day).
“Respect,” Koufax responded when asked by Jewish Week why he sat out the game.
For the same reason, and to show solidarity with my Tribe, I will not make my customary dozens of Facebook posts today or publish my two online political newspapers.
Unetaneh Tokef is one of the most sublime texts in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies. It begins with the trembling of guilty angels as God opens the Book of Remembrances. It continues with God inscribing people’s fates for the next year as they proceed before him. And it concludes with an entreaty for forgiveness and the exaltation of God’s name. At its climax, it contains the following passage:
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed… Who will live and who will die— Who at his time, and who before his time— Who by water and who by fire… Who will rest and who will wander; Who will live in harmony and who will be buffeted; Who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer; Who will be impoverished and who enriched; Who will be degraded and who exalted. But repentance and prayer and charity will make the Decree less bad.
This final line is the fulcrum around which the text’s meaning revolves. According to some mistranslations, repentance, prayer, and charity are said to “avert the bad Decree,” but in Hebrew, it is quite plain that it is the badness (the ro’ah) of the Decree, and not the Decree itself, that is averted. The blow will come, but when it does, something can soften it.
We cannot necessarily prevent bad things happening to us, the liturgy suggests. Although our choices can greatly influence the paths our lives take, we cannot immunize ourselves from every possible external shock. We cannot control the future. But we can control how it controls us. By leading our lives in a certain way, we can regulate how we experience those bad things when they strike. We can decide whether we will let them destroy us, or whether we will emerge from them stronger. Subversively, the prayer suggests that we have the power, by choice, simply to experience bad things as being less bad.
In other words: We cannot stop life throwing lemons at us, but we can stop ourselves being bruised by the flying lemons, and even make lemonade. And with this empowering message, Unetaneh Tokef appeals for Jews to embrace a lesson first laid down by Aristotle, just before the conquest of ancient Israel by Alexander the Great.