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The Festive Meal

When Yom Kippur was a time to eat, drink, and be merry

Eddy Portnoy
September 24, 2009
Courtesy Eddy Portnoy
New York Times, September 27, 1898Courtesy Eddy Portnoy
Courtesy Eddy Portnoy
New York Times, September 27, 1898Courtesy Eddy Portnoy

When Jews decide to chow down on Yom Kippur, it’s usually done clandestinely, sneaking tasty morsels in a dark pantry, or disappearing into a diner in some nearby non-Jewish neighborhood. But furtive noshing wasn’t always the heretical path of choice on the Day of Atonement. Just over a century ago, a range of leftists held massive public festivals of eating, dancing, and performance for the full 25 hours of Yom Kippur, not only as a way to fight for the their right to party, but to unshackle themselves from the oppressive religious dictates they grew up with. What does one do, after all, when prayers and traditional customs no longer hold any meaning yet you still want to be part of a Jewish community? Eating with intention on a fast day allows you, in one fell swoop, to thumb your nose at the religious establishment and create a secular Jewish identity.

These Yom Kippur Balls, organized initially by anarchists in the mid-1880s, started in London and migrated to New York and Montreal. Smaller nosh fests and public demonstrations were also celebrated by Jewish antinomians in other locales. Unorthodox Jews in interwar Poland could pull hundreds of locals into small venues on Yom Kippur in shtetls like Kalish and Chelm; in larger cities like Warsaw and Lodz, they could sell out 5,000-seat circuses. Heresy was big business; tickets for early 1890s Yom Kippur events cost 15 cents for anarchists: capitalists who deigned to attend paid double.

Advertised in the Yiddish press, Yom Kippur balls, lectures, and nosh-fests were decidedly communal events created by and for an alternative community. You had to be a Jew to avail yourself of a blintz given out by a Jewish organization in Warsaw on Yom Kippur. Otherwise, it just wasn’t heresy. Yet it was not just provocation that motivated people to engage in what critics would consider a supremely obnoxious activity. Some people partook to spite a god they don’t believe in. Others to antagonize their parents. Still others to harass the religious establishment. In fact harassment may have been the biggest draw.

Plus, it was often a way to get free publicity. New York’s Herrick Brothers Restaurant caused a riot on Yom Kippur in 1898 when it became apparent they were staying open for the holiday. As the sun went down on the Lower East Side and a good portion of its denizens made their way to shul, hundreds of them fell upon diners at the packed Division Street restaurant with fist and nail.

And some revelers were motivated to attend Yom Kippur balls for political reasons, as an excerpt from Haynt, one of Warsaw’s daily Yiddish papers, made clear the day after Yom Kippur, 1927:

In the non-religious sector everything went according to tradition. The Independent Socialists organized a Kol nidre evening in which various “cantors” and “cantorettes” performed in a Jewish fashion. And there was rejoicing in the house.

This year, the Free-thinkers also fulfilled their “holy mission” and held a meeting during Kol nidre at the Worker’s House on 23 Karmelitska Street in which religion, Yom Kippur and atheism was discussed.

And if the meeting itself went without incident, they went out onto the Jewish streets the morning of Yom Kippur and hawked old issues of the magazine “The Freethinker” while people were on their way to shul. On account of this, a number of fights occurred between religious Jews and the “holy rollers” that sold the magazines.

A few incidents also occurred during the day, when a group of Free-thinkers came out onto Karmelitska, Dzika and Nalevkes, some with lit cigarettes, and others with apples in their mouths.

On account of this provocation, a serious battle occurred between the “demonstrators” and the religious passers-by. Water was dumped from a window on Karmelitska Street onto the heads of the Freethinkers.

Also, a free lunch was organized at the Worker’s Home at 23 Karmelitska Street for those who weren’t able to eat at home because of their parents or wives.

The number of takers for this free lunch was so large that the line for tickets stretched all the way to the front gate of the building, where a large crowd gathered. Some protested against those eating, others in defense of them. Occasionally, the arguments became so heated that the police had to intervene.

Similar scenes also occurred at the Bundist “Worker’’s Corner,” on 9 Pshiazd Street, where the struggle for lunch was so great that the screams and yells could be heard all the way in the street. In addition, some of those eating showed off their big appetites in front of the windows, bringing forth much anguish among the religious Jews who were passing by.

The “struggle for lunch” was indeed intense. Yom Kippur battles broke out between religious and anti-religious Jews worldwide as a result of these annual provocations. Released from communal religious obligation, contemporary American Jews might find these events to be quaint little political-religious convulsions of yesteryear. In Israel, where religious influence in political and daily life is more of an issue, such provocations might seem more understandable. But perhaps Israelis don’t need another dispute on their plate. Packed beaches in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur are an indication that the “struggle for lunch” has been transformed, in the Jewish state, into the “struggle for rest and relaxation.”

Eddy Portnoy is academic adviser and director of exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, as well as the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press (Stanford University Press 2017).