Think of a typical scene from the High Holy Days. Maybe what comes to mind is a roomful of congregants sitting with heavy books in their laps listening to a rabbi sermonize or a cantor chant.
But what about eating pizza? Or embracing a chicken? Not so much.
Yet those are some of the things that Jewish clergy, educators and activists want Jews to do during their holiest days of the year.
Aside from attending synagogue or dipping apples in honey, the extensive body of High Holy Day traditions includes rituals that are participatory, intricate and even acrobatic — but also obscure, inaccessible and sometimes distasteful.
In recent years, Jewish educators have tried to reclaim these rituals — changing and innovating them to be more engaging, understandable and relevant.
Here are some ways Jews are getting creative with the High Holy Days this year.
Hug a chicken
If you walk into a haredi Orthodox neighborhood the day before Yom Kippur, don’t be surprised to see men swinging live chickens above their heads. The ritual, called kapparot, aims to symbolically transfer a person’s sins onto the chicken, who then is donated to the poor and slaughtered for food.
Some observant Jews, unable or unwilling to gain possession of a live chicken, now swing money over their heads that then goes to charity.
Others have taken to protesting communities that still use chickens.
But at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, Sarah Chandler has a different response: Instead of grabbing the chicken and whipping it through the air, just give it a hug.
Chandler, who was ordained as a Hebrew priestess at the Kohenet Institute, will take a group to the center’s chicken coop on the Sunday before Yom Kippur and begin to recite the kapparot prayers. Then, if the chickens agree, the assembled will embrace them while completing the prayers, confessing their sins or meditating.
At the end of the ritual, the worshippers will simply let the chickens walk free.
Although Chandler is a vegan, she appreciates the parts of ancient Jewish rituals that involve connecting to animals. This version of kapparot, she said, strengthens the relationships between people and animals while causing the animals no harm.
“How can we include these chickens in our Jewish life?” she asks. “I want the ritual to be so embraced that people really believe that this chicken, and this moment looking into the chicken’s eyes, will help them be written in the Book of Life.”
Tashlich with pizza
One of the more physical rituals of Rosh Hashanah is tashlich (casting away) — a ritual where people take bread to a natural body of water and throw it in, representing the casting away of their sins.
But Rabbi Jeremy Fine of the Conservative Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, Minnesota, has always had trouble getting people to participate. So this year he decided to involve the congregation’s kids.
The Sunday before Rosh Hashanah, about 100 religious school students were planning to bake pizza at the synagogue and then eat it for lunch — while saving the crusts in bags in the refrigerator. After services on Rosh Hashanah, the plan was for the kids to retrieve their crusts and chuck them into the nearby Mississippi River.
Yizkor for gun victims
Given the local strife affecting the largely non-Jewish neighborhood, Manasseh felt a service focused only on relatives who passed would be inadequate.
So last year, she organized a Yom Kippur service on her street corner that, along with a shofar blast and prayers, included a reading of the names of Chicago’s gun violence victims that year.
Just reading the list, she says, took 15 minutes. The plan is to do it again this year.
Twists on Selichot
For Ashkenazi Jews, the kickoff to the High Holy Days this year was on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, when congregations gather to say Selichot (prayers of atonement). Depending on tradition, the prayers range from a lively call-and-response to long, complex poems muttered almost silently.
But this year, some places did it differently.
At Lab/Shul, an experimental Jewish congregation in Manhattan, the congregation was to partner with a meditation center and intersperse Selichot prayers from a range of traditions with meditation and contemplation.
“It’s a way to begin the season by taking responsibility and accountability for who you are in front of God,” said Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, the founder and spiritual leader of Lab/Shul. “The liturgy and the assumption of saying sorry to God feels a little challenging, so we feel that scaffolding and pairing [that] with introspection and the tools of meditation and contemplation are everyone-friendly. They don’t assume faith.”
In Providence, Rhode Island, musician Noraa Kaplan was to turn the Selichot service into a concert. Kaplan invited fellow musicians to perform, and planned on ending the night with a piece of performance art challenging a range of Jewish rituals. It was to include her parodying a bad bar-mitzvah DJ, “ask[ing] people to clap their hands, and then ask[ing] them to clap their hands if they’ve ever wronged someone.” She also planned to swing a rubber chicken over her head and to let the attendees decide which charity would benefit from the night’s proceeds.
Every year on Yom Kippur, David Zvi Kalman has joined others at synagogue in standing through a long list of communal sins recited by the entire congregation. The confessional prayers, known as the Viddui (confession), each begin, “For the sin we have sinned before you …”
The laundry list of transgressions, covering everything from eating impure foods to berating a friend, is a central piece of the day’s liturgy and is repeated eight times. Worshippers are supposed to gently beat their chests at each line.
Kalman had trouble identifying with the prayers, finding the confessions to be overly general and prescriptive. They’re the sins the liturgy says you should feel sorry for, not necessarily the ones you actually committed.
So in 2013, he created AtoneNet, where people can anonymously post the sins they would like to confess and receive forgiveness for. (The process is very much like the online eScapegoat created several years ago by G-dcast, now called BimBam.) While AtoneNet’s response rate has tapered off in the four years since it launched, a fresh batch of “sins” — such as not giving enough charity or getting angry — have been posted this month.
“A lot of people have specific regrets about the way they treated a family member in the time of illness,” Kalman said. “You don’t see a recognition of that in the traditional confession.”
Kalman prints out the entire site each year as a booklet and ships it to those who order it for use on Yom Kippur.