by Jonah Sampson Boyarin
THERE ARE TWO YOM KIPPUR STORIES about Rabbi Yisroel Salanter: one well-known, one lesser known. Rabbi Salanter was the 19th century founder of the Lithuanian Mussar movement, which strived to awaken Jews to a more rigorously ethical approach to religious life.
The better-known story goes like this: it was Yom Kippur of 1848 and Rabbi Salanter’s Vilna community was suffering in the throes of the deadly cholera epidemic raging that year. After Yom Kippur morning services, he got up on the bimah and commanded everyone to immediately go home and eat and drink in order to save their lives. Not a soul in the congregation moved, transfixed by their pious fear of transgressing the day’s holy fast, so he pulled out some wine, made kiddush, and drank it down in front of everyone. Humbled, frightened, and inspired, they filed home, made kiddush, ate and drank, regained their strength, and on his merit many lives were saved that day.
The story above was first recorded in Hebrew by Rabbi Betzalel HaKohen in 1869 and has had numerous Hebrew and English tellings since. It’s a nice Rabbi Salanter Yom Kippur story, without a doubt, but it’s the other one — in Yiddish, somewhat lesser-known — that, as I argue later below, offers a rich resource for Jewish feminist ritual life today.
Existing versions of this second story in English are available in a couple of sources. I first came across it in Mordekhai Lipson’s 1928 Yiddish folk collection, Di Velt Dertseylt (“They Tell It”). I’ve translated it here as follows:
One time, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter was late to Kol Nidrei. Naturally, the entire congregation waited for him: You couldn’t leave until he had said his Kol Nidrei. They waited and waited–it grew quite late–but Reb Yisroel still wasn’t there. So the shamesh, the synagogue’s beadle, was sent over to his house: No one was home! They had all left to hear Kol Nidrei. The congregation began to become agitated, worrying that, Heaven forbid, something had happened to Reb Yisroel. So they set off in search of him. They searched and they inquired, but he was nowhere to be found. They started to make their way back. As they approached the synagogue, they glanced through the window of a nearby home, and were shocked and amazed to see Reb Yisroel, sitting by a cradle and gently rocking the child inside it. They ran into the home, saying: “Rabbi! Don’t you know, we’ve been looking everywhere for you. We’re waiting for you to do Kol Nidrei.”
“Shhh,” Reb Yisroel replied, “You’ll wake the babe. It only just fell asleep. When I was walking to synagogue, I heard a child’s cry. So I went into this room and no one was here: They had all gone to synagogue. I sat right down and rocked the babe, until it had fallen asleep…” [p. 297]
THE PERSON TAKING ON THE TRADITIONALLY FEMALE LABOR of childcare in this story is the one you might least expect, and at the time when you’d least expect it. Rabbi Salanter could plausibly have noticed the crying baby and then made a different choice, like continuing on to synagogue, asking someone else to go take care of the child, and beginning services on time. But instead he chose to enter the home and rock the baby’s cradle, knowing full well that the congregation would be waiting for its rabbi, and would presumably eventually come searching for him. So, what did Reb Yisroel hope to teach his congregants when they found him sitting by the cradle, on Yom Kippur of all nights? There’s no moral explicitly stated in the story after the tantalizing ellipses. But here’s what I think: Rabbi Salanter chose to model to his congregants that childcare, a traditionally female and often invisibilized form of labor, was extremely important — more important, in fact, than beginning the year’s most famous prayer service on time. Moreover, the obligation of performing this crucial work rested on the whole community, including its men.
Now, let’s be clear: Rabbi Salanter indisputably occupied a traditionally male, hierarchical authority role with respect to his community, and I don’t think we can plausibly recast him as a feminist per se. But this remarkable little Yiddish story carries a bright seed of Jewish feminist praxis today, in which traditionally female, undervalued forms of labor, such as childcare, cooking, and emotional care are celebrated and valued alongside traditionally male, valued forms of labor, such as synagogue worship. May it be so! That in this new year 5778 may more of us cis-men follow in Reb Yisroel’s example, staying home to cook, clean, and care for our children, elders, and infirm folks, freeing up the women and gender-queer folks in our homes and communities and lives to attend and lead services as they will.
Jonah Sampson Boyarin is a Jewish educator and activist. He was a 2016-2017 Translation Fellow at the National Yiddish Book Center, a member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a student of Talmud, and a teacher of yoga. In 2016, he cofounded the country’s first Diversity & Equity program at a Jewish day school, at JCHS of the Bay.