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Kol Nidre Showed Me What It Means To Truly Belong in the Jewish Community

The Yom Kippur prayer unites everyone who hears it. Twenty-five years after I converted, it still gives me goose bumps.

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(Illustration Tablet Magazine, based on Wikimedia Commons)
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I am always struck by the simplicity of Yom Kippur: All I can do is go to shul, sleep (but how much can I sleep?), and go to shul again, because really, what else is there to do? Read, perhaps? Even reading makes me feel guilty unless I am reading a Jewish text. And therein, I think, lies the beauty of Yom Kippur: It is a day I give to God, on God’s terms, not mine. Loving someone means doing things for him or her, sometimes things I otherwise wouldn’t do, or don’t really want to do. I do not consider myself particularly devout, and yet, observing Yom Kippur with fasting and prayer gives someone like me, who does not typically find prayer a way to connect with God, another way to create that relationship.

Kol Nidre was always there, of course, during those times we gathered in the basement of Hillel, but only when I heard Cantor Solomon sing it for the first time did the splendor of the prayer, that old, old melody whose origins no one can quite trace, get under my skin, literally stir me up inside. The beauty of his singing created something transcendental in that contemporary synagogue, provided a glimpse of the divine among us ordinary humans. I had felt a similar tremor of emotion before, in the opera, where exquisite bliss can hang on the lips of a tenor singing arias like “Nessum Dorma” in Turandot, but, while opera might create divine beauty, it does not connect with the divine. Kol Nidre, if sung with skill, care, and heart, moves because it seeks to connect with the divine. Cantor Solomon had me trembling not only with his perfect rendition of its haunting melody; his voice also carried the awe of pleading with a God who manifested himself in a burning bush, the weight of a relationship that is thousands of years old, and a history that is both terrible and glorious. If ever a melody had meaning, it is Kol Nidre. It invokes a people, and it invokes their God.

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We switched synagogues when my husband was saying Kaddish for his father, as Rodfei Zedek could not offer a daily minyan; Cantor Solomon retired at about the same time. I have grown accustomed to the cantor at Chicago Loop Synagogue whose version of Kol Nidre is delivered with more pathos, but still moving enough to inspire my six-word Jewish memoir.

On Erev Yom Kippur, I always hustle my family to arrive at shul on time because I have to be there when everybody is standing in that sea of tallit (at Chicago Loop Synagogue, which we now attend, seating is mixed during the High Holidays), waiting for the voice of the cantor to rise: “Kol Nidre…” Yom Kippur is the only holy day that has its own beginning prayer. I think it is fitting that the first word of this ancient incantation is kol—all. Even though Kol Nidre is literally about all the vows we made to God that we did not keep, we are also all there. As we stand there, solemnity settles into souls. Some of my fellow congregants might even have goose bumps climbing up their arms and feel, like I do, that no other melody lifts that one great heart that is the Jewish people like Kol Nidre.

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Kol Nidre Showed Me What It Means To Truly Belong in the Jewish Community

The Yom Kippur prayer unites everyone who hears it. Twenty-five years after I converted, it still gives me goose bumps.

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