Until this year, I never thought of the Jewish High Holidays as worker holidays.
The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, which starts at sundown on Wednesday, are called the Days of Awe. It is said in tradition that during this time, the skies are open and so is the Book of Life, which sets out what our next year be like. In the hopes of being inscribed for a good year, Jews ask forgiveness from our peers for misdeeds. Then, on Yom Kippur, when the book is symbolically sealed, observant Jews fast and pray to atone for their trespasses against God.
I grew up in a secular family in a secular community in Tel Aviv, Israel. At home, in school, and with friends, we’d exchange greetings of forgiveness — an annual tradition that I find beautiful. Then, on the day dedicated to asking forgiveness from God, we would rest.
My strongest memories of Yom Kippur from my childhood are of the days before — trips to the video store with my dad to get movies, and frantically rushing with my mom to the store to fix a flat tire on my bicycle. Then on the eve of Yom Kippur, everything in Jewish parts of Israel would shut down and cars would not drive, leaving streets deserted.
The day itself was always quiet. I would watch movies with my parents and ride my bicycle on the empty streets with friends.
But ever since I arrived in the U.S., I wasn’t sure what I should do on Yom Kippur. It feels dishonest to suddenly participate in religious rituals that I haven’t usually done before — like going to synagogue — but equally bizarre to pretend it is a regular day and go to work.
I was searching for a way to anchor my Jewish identity outside of my experience as an Israeli and beyond both religion and nationalism. I found that anchor in a 1931 Polish newspaper, when a secular group of Jews explained the day’s meaning to them as workers.
Many of Warsaw’s secular Jews were undoubtedly surprised when they couldn’t buy the newspaper on a Saturday in September 1931. The Folkstsaytung, the newspaper of the socialist Jewish Labour Bund in Poland, was published seven days a week, including Shabbos, but not that day — which was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
A few days later, an explanation followed with the announcement that the paper won’t be published on Yom Kippur, either. The secular editors didn’t become religious overnight — they had become even more entrenched in their commitment to workers.
The editors wrote that they didn’t publish on Rosh Hashanah because “Jewish festivals are not only of religious significance. They are also rest-days.”
The Bundists, as members of the Jewish socialist group were called, were generally no fans of religion. A 1906 item in the New York City-based newspaper the Hebrew Standard ran under the headline “Disgraceful,” reading: “East Broadway was the scene of a riot on Yom Kippur as the result of the action of the members of the ‘Bund’ ... While the people were on their way to the synagogues, these rowdies stood at the window of their club rooms eating and smoking.”
The Bundist were rowdies, and they were secular, but they were also deeply Jewish — an identity epitomized for them in Yiddish, the Eastern European Jewish dialect — and they fought for the rights of Jews. When Polish lawmakers proposed so-called “human slaughter laws” in the mid-’30s to ban Kosher slaughter, the Bund fought them as the anti-Semitic attacks that they were. In 1938, Bund leaders wrote in the Folkstsaytung: “We carry on a bitter struggle against our own clericalism; we are for true religious tolerance, but precisely because of this we oppose the ban.” The Bund’s note that the ban “takes the means of livelihood away from masses of Jewish workers” resonated with me considering the plight of U.S. workers today.
No rest for America’s workers
The coronavirus pandemic shed light on the impossible choices many American workers, particularly hourly and nonunionized ones, have always had to make — such as choosing to either work sick or lose pay. Policy experts even argue that the inability to take time off is undermining the U.S. vaccination efforts against COVID-19.
While federal law requires employers to accommodate workers’ time off requests for religious holidays, many workers can’t afford — literally — to make that ask. The United States does not require employers to pay for any time that employees do not work — whether that’s sick time, parental leave, or vacation. Many states and cities do require some form of paid leave, but Pennsylvania isn’t one of them.
Our society has plenty to atone for when so many workers can’t take time off on their religion’s most holy of days — or simply to rest. In addition to asking forgiveness during these Days of Awe, on Yom Kippur, I’ll be grateful for being in a unionized position that allows me a break — and for my radical ancestors who gave me a newfound connection to my Jewish identity and inspired me to start the new year with a sense of solidarity with all workers.