When Kol Nidre is sung on the eve of Yom Kippur, Jews everywhere are wrapped in spiritual emotion as they pray to be entered in the Book of Life. Jewish tradition says that on that sacred eve, you can hear the flutter of the wings of angels as they wait to be judged. For angels, too, must appeal for judgment on Yom Kippur. The chant of Kol Nidre captures this spirituality; if the Jewish soul could be set to music, Kol Nidre would be its melody. On Yom Kippur eve, the plaintive notes of Kol Nidre spread over the congregation like a musical prayer. Those somber notes also capture the pain of Jewish persecution in a way that no words can express.
It is during these moments of deep spirituality that I feel anger, not repentance. Why bitter anger? My answer is in the translation and deadly meaning of Kol Nidre: “All Vows.” These were the vows that generations of my ancestors had to make when they were forced to convert to Christianity. Their choice was simple but devastating: convert or die. This excruciating choice of conversion or death was offered on the point of a sword; far from choice, this was deadly subjugation. Kol Nidre was the cry of Jews to heaven for forgiveness for converting; a prayer of atonement for the vows forced upon them. These vows are the source of my anger. Anger that Jews had to make vows that stripped them of the Judaism that preserved them as they wandered through centuries of exile. On the pain of death, many Jews had to mouth the vow of conversion to Christianity, forsaking the faith of their Fathers. Tragically, even their conversion would not keep the converts alive. The powerful Inquisition of the time questioned the sincerity of the forced Christians’ faith and many were burned at the stake as heretics. My anger spurted from the rank injustice and power of life and death over Jews whose only crime was to practice a different religion.
But as quickly as my anger came, it quickly abated. I realized that Jews today, living in America or Israel, have distinctly different lives from our European ancestors. Jews of today have a status in society that has been reshaped by emancipation, by enlightenment, certainly through the crucible of the Shoah and the triumph of Zionism. Now we stand protected, not completely, by rights we enjoy as citizens and have learned to resist those who would force us to yield to suppression. As modern Jews with newfound rights and freedom, we are distinct from our ancestors. With the knowledge that, as a Jew, I might be tested, but never subjugated, I returned to the ancient liturgy and listened for the flutter of angel’s wings.
Herb Belkin is a historian who writes and lectures on the epic events of modern Jewish history.