Tonight, at sunset, the highest holy day begins. The Fast of Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement, when religious Jews and many less religious Jews spend the day in synagogue, praying to God, so they will be inscribed in the book of life for another year at least.
Cards on the table. I am not a religious Jew, but an atheist one, and I haven’t been to synagogue on Yom Kippur for decades, but I usually fast, I also usually work, but manage to find some time for reflection during that day on the last year and what I might try to do better. How I might contribute in different ways over the next 12 months to making a better world.
Atheist Jews who don’t go to synagogue are not a post-millennial invention. We have been around for many generations. When the majority of Jews came to Britain as immigrants from the Tsarist Russian Empire, they didn’t come as a homogenous community. They did not all think or believe the same things as each other. They ranged from complete atheists through to ultra-orthodox and every grade between. Worth keeping in mind when many mainstream media outlets still tend to homogenise minority communities, and marginalise, riducule or make invisible the dissenters within them.
Tomorrow, during the day of Yom Kippur I will be taking some new students at Queen Mary University of London, studying History, Politics and International Relations, on a walk of the Radical Jewish East End, and I’ll be telling them, among other things about how Benjamin Feigenbaum, a Yiddish-speaking anarchist, marked this Holiest of Holy Days.
He had been born in Warsaw into a hasidic family, but in his teens had become a passionate atheist. He emigrated from Poland to Belgium in the 1880s, working in sweatshops, and planning ways to ensure better lives for the workers. He had the idea of creating a radical newspaper in Yiddish to popularise his beliefs among his fellow wage slaves. But one person he shared this idea with told him there already was one – in London – called Arbeter Fraynd, established by socialists and anarchists in 1885 (it would become distinctly anarchist from 1891). Feigenbaum wrote to Krantz, the editor, who invited him to London. Long story short; he came to London, joined the Arbeter Fraynd collective and spent three years here agitating, organising, educating and satirising.
Feigenbaum’s comrades dubbed him the master of anti-religious satire. He wrote and published The Passover Hagaddah: According to a New Version, taking the book that Jews read on the Seder Nights at the beginning of Passover, telling the stories of their exodus from slavery in Egypt and subverting it. His version was a parody of religion and ritual, a serious commentary about contemporary political and industrial struggles, and a call to arms. He knew his way round the bible like the back of his hand and many of those who were the audience for his materials were very familiar with the religious sources and idioms he referenced to emphasise political points.
He parodied the official Yom Kippur liturgy which said: “Repentance, prayer and charity will avert the evil decree” and offered a more insurrectionary take: “Brutality, rebellion and force will avert the evil decree”. He took out: “The Lord reigns for ever and ever” and replaced it with a truth and a hope: “Mammon reigns – but not for ever”
But in his short stay in London, before he took his anarchist ideas and energy to New York, his most (in)famous piece of activism was a lecture he gave at 22 Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane on Yom Kippur in 1890. It was in Christchurch Hall – named after another Jewish boy who strayed from the orthodoxy he grew up with. The lecture, on this Holy Day, was entitled: “Is there a God?” well, if you are going to challenge, upset, annoy, and anger the coercive religious establishment of the local Jewish community, you might as well go the whole hog, so to speak.
Thomas Eyges, an eye-witness to this extraordinary event, described Feigenbaum (of whom unfortunately I haven’t tracked down any photo) and what followed: “He was of medium height with broad shoulders and gesticulated as he spoke.”
Eyges describes Feigenbaum speaking for one hour, parsing the philosophical questions.
“…What is god? It is an abstract word coined to designate the hidden forces of nature, while the belief in God is but a mechanical habit of childhood, a prejudice handed down from father to children…”
“Then he shouted: ‘If there is a God and if he is Almighty as the clergy claims he is, I give him just two minutes’ time to kill me on the spot, so that he may prove his existence!’ Two minutes passed, Feigenbaum exclaimed: ‘See! There is no God!’ The band struck up a revolutionary song. Then he announced a Yom Kippur ball – where pork was to be eaten…”
Sadly, for the radicals, freethinkers, anarchists and socialists of London, Feigenbaum left for America in 1890, but continued to be active in anarchist and trade union movements there. The Tradition of Yom Kippur balls continued though, on both sides of the Atlantic.
In subsequent years, others followed in Feigenbaum’s footsteps. Saul Yanovsky who ended up in New York too, also gave Yom Kippur lectures at the anarchist-inspired International Workers’ Education Clubs. In one, Yanovsky identified other hands writing and editing the “Book of Life”:
“It is not the Supreme God who determines the kind of year you should have. It is a different god, an earthly one and his name is Mammon… He writes down that before the year is over… there will be widows and orphans swollen with hunger, cast out, barefoot and naked into the cold dark streets.”
Yanovsky described the interior of the synagogue on the High Holy Days as a classic representation of class distinction — “the rich overdressed and overfed in seats set aside for the sheyne layt (the beautiful pampered ones), “while the poor are “pressed together by the door, hungry and ill-clad, with no prospects of a sumptuous fast-breaking meal to return to.”
From 1898, the Arbeter Fraynd was edited by a remarkable individual called Rudolf Rocker, raised in a Catholic orphanage in Mainz, Germany, who had arrived as a political exile in 1895, fell in love with Milly Witkop, a Yiddish speaking sweatshop worker from Ukraine, and dedicated his life to liberating the sweatshop workers, (and then the world), from exploitation and oppression.
Rocker had learned to read and write Yiddish (it is written in Hebrew characters), in order to agitate among the local workers for whom that language was their mame-loshn (mother tongue). In 1906 he was the leading figure in founding the most successful of the radical workers’ club in the East End the Jubilee Street Club, which was closed down by a repressive government in 1916, during the First World War.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the East End anarchists developed another tradition on Yom Kippur: standing opposite prominent synagogues, eating sandwiches on this fast day… well not just any sandwiches, but ham sandwiches. For the local Jewish anarchists this was a popular activity, a day on which they would enjoy themselves while asserting their resistance to the rabbis, who not only tried to coerce the community and enforce strict moral codes on Jewish behaviour, but also, whenever there was a strike, would use their sermons to berate the workers for taking unjustified industrial action against those they portrayed as fine upstanding members of the community. The rabbis knew which side their baygel was buttered, and who was really contributing most for the upkeep of the synagogue. It wasn’t the workers.
But there was a dissenting voice among the dissenters. It belonged to the non-Jewish anarchist, Rocker, who said: “The place for a believing Jew on Yom Kippur is in the synagogue. The place for anarchists should not be in the streets trying to deny someone else’s right to do what he wishes on that day.” He believed that even if the targets for the action were the coercive rabbis, their stunt was actually insulting everyone who walked through the doors of the synagogue that day, many of whom were ordinary workers who the anarchists were trying to influence in their everyday campaigning. But Rocker was over-ridden. Personally, I like political stunts but, speaking as a vegetarian, their choice of filling was appalling!
One enthusiastic member of the Arbeter Fraynd group, Rose Robins, described strange goings-on at Jubilee Street club, during the Yom Kippur fast:
“Shul (synagogue)-goers would creep furtively into the club to snatch a meal with their taleysim (prayer shawls) under their arms. On that night, we were kept really busy preparing the extra food required, while Kaplan (editor of the ArbeterFraynd]) took advantage of the situation to lecture the invaders on the falsity of religion. It was a profitable night — for the khaverim (comrades)!”
Whichever way you are marking Yom Kippur, keep it real, keep it meaningful and fast well if you are fasting. And let us pray to a deity or to ourselves, for a better year ahead for the 99%, struggling now, in whichever part of the world, against exploitation and oppression!