Jewish Holidays Don’t Work Like Yours
I’ve seen a lot of posts that seem to fundamentally misunderstand the mechanics of more important Jewish holidays, so allow me to clarify a few things: If you’re approaching Jewish holidays the same way you would approach Christian, or even Muslim, holidays, then your framework for understanding our observance is entirely wrong.
We have different levels of holidays. Some of them, like Chanukah, are more minor and don’t really require much of us other than the brief practice of some symbolic rituals, which we can do in addition to whatever else occurs in our normal everyday lives. Go to work, light a menorah, eat a latke, spin a dreidel, attend a protest, whatever. We can do that on minor holidays.
But our major holidays—which for more traditionally observant Jews, includes Shabbat, our Sabbath—don’t work like that. On Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot (first two days), Shmini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, Passover (first two days), and Shavuot, we are technically not permitted to work or participate in public life in any way. Now, sure—a lot of us who live in Western countries and aren’t strictly Orthodox have resorted to workarounds for a lot of these. For me, I’ll work during the day on Passover, and have Seder at night, or I’ll go to Shabbat services on Friday, and then go to a portest on Saturday, I won’t really observe Shavuot at all, etc. It’s not ideal, but it’s the price I pay for living in a society that demands my assimilation. But 1) There are a lot of Jews for whom that compromise is morally not an option and 2) For the majority of Jews around the world, even if we’re very assimilated the rest of the time, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur tend to be deal breakers—especially Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur, we do not eat or drink for 25 hours. We do not bathe, we do not wear leather. We do not use lotions or perfumes. We do not have intercourse. We do not work. We do not participate in public life. We go to synagogue and we fast and atone.
It’s not like Christmas where you are encouraged to spend the day feasting amongst family but can still go out if you so choose (provided anything is open), or like Ramadan, where you can work or go to school during the day and then have Ifthar at night. We’re literally prohibited from going anywhere but synagogue or another person’s house for observance, and asking us to change the way we observe even more than we already do just to get by in Western society really smacks of assimilationist hubris. It’s not like we don’t already face repercussions for this (I straight up got fired from a temp job once for saying I would not be able to work on Rosh Hashanah), but it would be nice not to face them from people who supposedly understand the dangers of white Christian hegemony.
So when major protests are scheduled time and time and time again for Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, etc. there are only two ways we can take it: Either the rest of you are totally approaching our holidays from a place of ill-informed cultural normativity lacking in any intention to correct that failure of understanding despite our repeated pleas to be included, or worse, it’s being done on purpose because people actively don’t want us there. I don’t believe there was anything malicious in this most recent instance because it seems like the organisers are genuinely trying to find a solution, but it is a recurring problem that needs to be addressed, and understanding how we observe is an important component of that. We want to march. We don’t want to assimilate. There should be room for that here.