The holiest Jewish day of the year

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Written By Clare Wadsworth

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year in Judaism, the tenth day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. We fast and pray, atone and repent. For many Jewish people it is the one day of the year when we actually do take part in a religious ritual.

We reaffirm being Jewish by attending synagogue, irrespective of our depth of religious adherence and regardless of our level of commitment to actual fasting or atonement. It is a day when one does think about being Jewish and about being part of a wider community with a shared cultural history.


As a child, it was a grim and moving day for me. When my parents had died when I was a teenager and otherwise non-observant, the prayers for the dead became something I could do for them – respect, a link.


Fasting is from sunset to nightfall the following day: no eating or drinking or smoking or driving unless you are ill or travelling. At least those were the rules in my family – I have since come across other, much stricter, ones.


Yitzkor is ‘remember’ in Hebrew and there is a special memorial service on the Day of Atonement, asking God to remember our dead parents, relatives and friends. You leave the synagogue for this and wait outside unless one of your parents is dead.


In the evening comes Kol Nidre, which means ‘all vows’ and dates from the Spanish Inquisition. It starts with very lovely music, sung or played, one of the most beautiful versions being by Pablo Casals in 1923.


A friend says that when he was young his father thought he should take him to a Yom Kippur service. He found it very boring and kept tugging at his father’s sleeve, hoping to get away and when they finally sneaked out and started walking home, much relieved to be free again, they suddenly saw their bus approaching. His father looked guilty, looked around and said,  “Hop on quickly!” So they rode home instead of walking and never gave it another thought!


When I came to live in Southwest France, leaving Hong Kong and the Ohel Leah Synagogue far away, I observed Yom Kippur by fasting, but no more. However, the most heart-warming, soul-stirring Day of Atonement I’ve ever spent was here when Judy Cassab and her younger son, Peter Kampfner, came from Sydney to stay. As well as being one of the greatest portrait painters of the twentieth century, a fine pianist and an important diarist.

Judy, who grew up in Beregszasz with my mother, was the most outstanding, inspirational person I have ever met, full of benevolence, generous common sense and open-mindedness, just the same person in London and Sydney as she was in Budapest and Condom.

It was a joy to drive her around the countryside with her sketchpad, stopping whenever something tugged at her imagination. And, on a more worldly level, she bought lots of sexy underwear and it’s the only time I’ve ever broken the fast with foie gras!


But then that is the basis of all the major Jewish holidays – they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!