On Yom Kippur 1927, the ultimate Yom Kippur movie was released in theaters. We may assume that this had an effect on the number of Jewish patrons for that first day, but the Jewish producers definitely weren’t in attendance—admittedly this was because they were at their brother’s funeral. The movie is, for the modern audience, a glimpse into another world, a Lower East Side that none of us would recognize. It is a story of the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants; he does not outright reject the religious traditions of his family, but he doesn’t exactly embrace them either. In fact, the film opens with the protagonist, teenager Jakie Rabinowitz, singing at a local bar on Erev Yom Kippur. His performance is cut short by his devout, bearded father bursting in and dragging him home. Jakie proclaims after his subsequent beating that he will run away and never return. When we see him again it is in modern-day London, and he bears the more modern name of Jack Robin.
Jack Robin belts out show tunes (in the days before they were called show tunes) with a “cry” in his voice that mimics that of his cantor father, but he doesn’t hear it. Years of assimilation have not hampered his ability to hear it in other people, though—while touring in Chicago, he attends a concert of Yossele Rosenblatt, an actual cantor who appears in the film as a cameo. Rosenblatt’s stirring rendition of the Kaddish is like a loud shofar call for Jack; he is clearly uncomfortable hearing it, but how will he respond?
Indeed, Al Jolson, the prolific actor and singer who plays Jack, was a Jewish immigrant himself; he was born in Vilnius, just like the founders of our beautiful synagogue. Jolson, like Jack, was also the son of a cantor and also performed under an anglicized name (he was born “Asa Yoelson”). In 1922, he performed a benefit concert for Jewish veterans of the Great War, in what may have been the first celebrity charity drive to help others of his own race (celebrities were discouraged from having ethnic backgrounds during this time, unless it was a real or imagined heritage that could be exploited to suit current tastes; being Jewish was never one of those tastes).
“The Jazz Singer” has earned a place in cinematic history as the first “sound” film; while this isn’t technically true, it is the first to successfully integrate the human voice into a feature film, and even then it is only in the songs and a couple lines of dialog. However, it’s a serious oversight to ignore its significance in Jewish history as well, particularly when we consider that a Yom Kippur movie, released on Yom Kippur by a Jewish-owned studio would have been an impossibility a few years hence. In 1934, a “production code” was enforced in Hollywood to rein in the decadence which was the hallmark of both American movies and the industry itself; this explains why the 1930s kicked off with Claudette Colbert taking a bath in donkey’s milk and ended with Andy Hardy, but it also explains why the Jewish movie moguls kept Jewish imagery and themes out of their pictures. At the risk of sounding like a college professor, the Production Code sought to whitewash American movies, and for about thirty years, it was successful. To a certain extent, it is still successful, because no one remembers “The Jazz Singer” apart from its technological advancement.
Yom Kippur suffers from similar misrepresentation. Just yesterday morning, I was forced to watch “The View” because that’s what was on in the nail salon, and one of the hosts, who definitely is authoritative on socio-cultural affairs, announced that Yom Kippur is the day that Jewish people atone for their sins and also fast; she proceeded to express gratitude at not being Jewish because “I could never do that.” Suffice to say that neither a fast nor a little self reflection would have killed her. It’s easy to make fun of this woman’s ignorance, but it’s also a little bit depressing when we remember just how many Jews are just as ignorant about what today means. At least when Jakie Rabinowitz ran away from home, he had a Jewish education. He chose a different path, but he knew what he was leaving behind. None of us has any business dismissing one of our holiest days without having a better understanding of it than a daytime talk show host.
The Torah portion that we just read talked about the procedures of the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol, on Yom Kippur in the days of the temple. The deference given to this holy ceremony is described in great detail, but if you take away only one thing, let it be the emphasis on purity. The High Priest designates two goats to represent both his own sins and those of the people of Israel; one will be sacrificed on an altar and one will be thrown off a cliff, respectively. Then, he immerses in the mikveh and dons clean white linen just to be physically fit to enter the Holy of Holies. Some other building is on top of it now, but hopefully one day it can be entered again. Prayer might have replaced ritual animal slaughter, but it isn’t any less important that we prepare ourselves physically so that we might be in the right frame of mind to correctly observe the day, and the way to do that is to abstain from physicality. We are not our bodies. “Earthly pleasures” might suffice for lowly mortals, but what we must understand today is that our bodies have an expiration date but we do not.
Another misconception about Yom Kippur is that it is a sad day. After all, we recite the Martyrology, which lists the most horrific catastrophes our people have suffered between Roman times and the Holocaust, with allusions to the struggles that the State of Israel endured in the second half of the 20th century through to today. And with that we have the Yizkor service, remembering all those we have lost within our families and the greater Jewish community, both by natural means and otherwise. But this isn’t a day of mourning. That title belongs to Tisha b’Av, which was a couple of months ago, and commemorates our loss of the second temple and offers the chance for us to reflect why there’s still this other building on top of where it was located. Today, however, we are simply including our dead in the service so that their souls, too, might not be forgotten; indeed, it is a tantalizing thought that many of us might be embodying those same souls. Our bodies are the vehicles through which those souls can continue to work towards the coming of Mashiach. And there is a custom that tonight, those of you who are single can look for a date, as noted by Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel in the first century AD; this makes Yom Kippur one of two “Jewish Valentine’s Days” during the year. Gamliel was himself a victim of the riots that immediately preceded the destruction of the Second Temple.
Without giving away the ending of “The Jazz Singer,” I will say that the conclusion does involve Jack Robin’s decision to chant the Kol Nidre service in his childhood synagogue in lieu of appearing in the opening night of his Broadway debut. This is to the complete and utter consternation of his manager and girlfriend, neither of whom are Jewish. Jack himself isn’t wholly complicit in what he does, but he knows it will placate his dying father, from whom he has been estranged, One must also recall that active participation in the Jewish faith was never more discouraged than in our own time and our own recent memory, of which the earlier 20th century is certainly a part. There is no antisemitism in “The Jazz Singer” but contemporary Jewish audiences would have understood all too well the struggles that Jack demonstrates, especially when his conscious is roused by Yossele Rosenblatt’s concert and by his strained relationship with his father and the world he left behind as a teenager.
There is reason to believe at the conclusion of the film that Jack does not bend over backwards in the future to maintain a balance between his Jewishness and his burgeoning career as a Broadway actor. For the son of immigrants, the opportunities that assimilation provided were better than dreams fulfilled—fame, fortune, a beautiful shiksa girlfriend portrayed by May McAvoy (yes, the word shiksa appears on one of the title cards when Jack’s mother reflects over a letter he has sent home). These earthly indulgences definitely satisfied his needs as a man, but it took the voice of a bearded, spectacled little man from the Ukraine to stir his soul. Yom Kippur is a day that focuses on nothing else apart from the soul, and the things from which we abstain on this day are all things that souls do not require. If at any time today we can fully grasp, even for an instant, the importance of gratifying our soul with the same vanity and indulgence and care that we give to our bodies, then we will have achieved the highest goal of Yom Kippur.
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