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Fire and rebirth



This will be a high-anxiety Yom Kippur. Even the wave of relief from the shofar blast signalling the end of the fast will be short-lived.

The pandemic, with its face coverings, social distancing, hand washing, and isolation, has been with us for many months, and will still be there when the fast is over. And because Yom Kippur is also a day of prayer and self-reflection, it will be hard not to lament the lousy hand we’ve been dealt. For me, as always, it will remind me of another high-anxiety Yom Kippur, and I hope this one also leads to better times.

The sirens calling Israeli reservists to battle on 6 October 1973, turned that Yom Kippur from a day of prayer to a day of emergency mobilisation. Ironically, because so many Israelis were at services, officers were able to enter synagogues and dispatch reservists to their units as the country transformed from peace to war.

But this story is about the next Yom Kippur.

Living in Brooklyn, I was concerned about friends and family in Israel, but I had some draft-board obligations – the Vietnam War was winding down but not over – and I had just begun my studies at Brooklyn College. After the spring semester, I bought an open-ended student ticket, meandered through Holland and Belgium, and then caught a flight to Tel Aviv. I had no plan whatsoever, but a high school friend met me at the airport and invited me to crash at the kibbutz where he had been living. They liked him at the kibbutz, and they were happy to house and feed his American friend for a few days. By day three, though, they suggested that I start working or find alternative accommodation. I opted for the former.

I discovered quickly that farming is hard work. Whether you are working in the fields or tending to the livestock, nature dictates the rhythm, and it’s relentless. The typical day starts before sunrise, and ends when it ends. The work is physically demanding, and the summer heat oppressive. I thought about quitting, but then fate smiled on me.

The kibbutz had plenty of hands to milk the cows and pick the cotton: it had other volunteers; it had students in an ulpan, a Hebrew-language immersion course; and it had a unit of soldiers detailed to it. However, because reservists were cycled back and forth from civilian life to the front lines, there weren’t enough licensed drivers to operate tractors and combines. I had a valid New York State driver’s license. The fact that I had never driven a car with a manual transmission, much less a twelve-gear tractor or a massive cotton combine, didn’t deter me from offering my services, or the kibbutz from accepting. Somehow, I managed to learn without any serious incidents.

I often worked alone in the fields on the midnight shift, and I learned to appreciate solitude. The roar of the tractor is incessant, but you don’t shut off the engine unless a plow blade, a hydraulic line, or some other mechanical emergency requires immediate attention. When I did shut it off, I felt enveloped by the darkness and the silence. The sensation didn’t last long because of the pressure to get back to work, but I still remember those moments of stillness.

Which brings us to the high-anxiety Yom Kippur of 1974.

Most synagogues have a cantor for the high holy days. At the kibbutz in 1974, services were led by the kibbutzniks, many of whom were Holocaust survivors and most of whom were veterans of Israel’s wars. Services were utilitarian because even on Yom Kippur, the cows must be milked, the chickens must be fed, and those on guard duty must be relieved.

But when the cantor recited the soulful lines of the Unesaneh Tokef prayer, “Who will live and who will die … who by fire and who by the sword”, you could feel the emotion. (This standard of the Yom Kippur liturgy is attributed to Rabbi Amnon of Mainz in the 11th century. Many now recognise the lines as lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s dirge-like classic Who by Fire.)

A year earlier, Israelis raced into battle, spending weeks, sometimes months, under fire in bunkers and tanks, and many were now missing from the pews.

Because services were quicker, there was a long break before the closing Neilah prayer and the concluding shofar blast. Most people remained subdued, in part because they were fasting and in part because of the solemnity of the day. But on this Yom Kippur, they were also anxiously praying for the sirens to remain silent.

I’ve been to Israel many times since, and I always try to visit the kibbutz to reconnect and recall those nights in the field and that long, anxiety-filled Yom Kippur afternoon. I haven’t visited this year because of coronavirus restrictions, and I suspect that Yom Kippur services worldwide will be subdued because of the many empty seats, mostly as a result of social distancing, but some for those who succumbed to this awful disease. It can be argued that the seeds of Middle East peace were planted on that fateful Yom Kippur. Hopefully, good things will come from this one as well.

  • Howard N. Apsan PhD is an executive at The City University of New York, a faculty member at Columbia University, and the founder of Apsan Consulting, specialising in environmental and risk management.

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