IN SEARCH OF ‘A FUTURE AND A HOPE’
Why are we here today? Each one of us will have our own answers to that question – and those who are not sure why they are here today, may find answers in the course of the next few hours. I don’t have any official answers to give you. What I can say is that Yom Kippur is a special opportunity to be with ourselves and with one another, and to reflect on our lives and on the challenges of Life itself. As we share this precious day, I would like to invite you at some point, to take a moment to identify the questions you bring with you today, and to think about any questions you may have about the world outside – and in particular, about the society we are living in right now in Britain in 2011.
In the meantime, I want to remind you about a couple of significant events that took place over the summer. On July 23rd a young woman called Amy Winehouse died alone in her Camden Square townhouse, while her bouncer slept below. September 14th would have been her 28th birthday. Who was she? A lonely little waif, blessed with a big voice? A nice Jewish girl, who lost her way? A wonderful jazz singer and musician, gobbled up by the insatiable public hunger to consume other people’s talent? A home-girl, who couldn’t cope with fame, and so turned to drink and drugs? An exceptionally gifted artist, who allowed her less talented partner to lead her astray – and then couldn’t mend her own broken heart? Just another over-blown celebrity?
Maybe she was all these things – and more – but if she did become a celebrity, always in the spotlight, judging by how she responded to fame, she certainly didn’t want to be. Whatever you thought of her, Amy Winehouse was what most celebrities certainly are not: a prodigious talent. And even more important: there was real substance to her; intelligence, character, personality, integrity. Amy Winehouse wasn’t just famous for being famous.
And then there was something quite complex going on in the sad tale of her demise. Having won multiplatinum awards for her album, Back to Black, the first single from the album, ‘Rehab’, didn’t just become a top 10 hit, it stayed in the charts for 57 weeks, selling 10 million copies. As a result of the success of ‘Rehab’, Amy Winehouse became the first British singer to win Five Grammy awards. But what was she saying with this song? ‘They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no.’ A hip, cool lyric? No. It’s a cry of utter despair. Is that why so many people bought the single? Because they were as intoxicated with the palpable anguish of Amy Winehouse, as she herself was with alcohol? The Guardian columnist, Alexandra Topping observed, ‘At the messy and makeshift shrine outside Winehouse’s home, with its vodka bottles and cigarette packets, flowers and portraits, some fans cried. Others took oddly awkward photographs of themselves outside the place where she spent her last hours.’ Apparently, one fan who went to watch the coffin go past outside Golder’s Green crematorium, remarked, ‘We saw her deterioration every day, in every picture. It’s like we were on a journey with her. So many people just wanted her to get better.’ So, Amy Whitehouse, her wretchedness writ large, somehow, perhaps, representing the misery of others – and holding out the hope, that if she could recover and find purpose and meaning in her life, so could they?
Amy Winehouse had many, many fans; but, no doubt, despite the fact that her music really belonged to the more intimate world of the jazz clubs frequented by an older generation, she captured the hearts and imaginations of tens of thousands of young people, whose adoration helped catapult her into the stratosphere of stardom.
So, what about these young people? Of course, it’s a coincidence that on August 6th just two weeks after Amy Winehouse died, following a protest march in Tottenham, North London concerning a fatal police shooting two days earlier, a riot broke out, which soon sparked five days of rioting in towns and cities across Britain. Less than a week later, about 3,100 people had been arrested, of whom more than 1,000 had been charged. Of course, the rioters were not just young people. However, already on the third day of the rioting, it was clear that the majority of the rioters were young. In its on-line data-blog of August 9th, The Guardian recorded that of the 155 people arrested in London the previous night, whose age was known, 2 were born in the 1960s, 6 were born in the 1970s, 49 were born in the 1980s, and 98 were born in the 1990s.
At the time, and since, so many reasons have been offered to explain the rioting: poor relations with the police, family breakdown, unemployment, government cuts, social exclusion, gang culture, criminal opportunism, and a lack of moral leadership at the top, being among the main causes cited by pundits and politicians of various persuasions. If we consider these factors, it is evident that the younger members of our society have been disproportionately affected, let down, in particular, by an educational system that fails to meet the needs of the majority, and by cuts in the youth provision, especially the closure of youth clubs, in response to the economic crisis. Of course, only a very small proportion of people, all together, were involved in the riots – and so, consequently, a small proportion of young people, too. And no doubt, the ‘copycat’ factor cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, the riots revealed an issue that has nothing to do with numbers, and which exposes something very troubling at the heart of our society: anomie – the word used by the 19th century French sociologist, Emil Durkheim, to express the sense of futility, hopelessness, meaninglessness and lack of purpose.
In his Guardian column published on the same day as those interesting statistics – Tuesday, August 9th – Jonathan Freedland commented on what he saw as an absence of ‘political purpose’ in the riots. He wrote: ‘For some, especially at the start in Tottenham, there was clearly a political dimension – with the police the prime focus of their anger. But … It’s striking that the targets have not been town halls or, say, Tory HQ – stormed by students last November – but branches of Dixons, Boots and Carphone Warehouse. If they are making a political statement, it is that politics does not matter.’ Yes, not just those who looted and burned, it seems a lot of people have the feeling, as they watch politicians lie and cheat, and fail to deal constructively with the economic crisis, that politics does not matter – and ethical behaviour doesn’t matter either. But one thing can make a difference to people’s lives: ‘stuff’; valuable material goods – flat-screen TVs and smart phones, and fashionable clothes. And in our society, who is more desperate to grab hold of ‘stuff’ than young people with no hope of obtaining any employment, let alone a good job?
And before we get too moralistic about the preoccupation with ‘stuff’, let’s not forget that those who seem consumed with a craving to have all the latest consumer products, only want what other people – including some of us – already have and take for granted. But, as it happens, those who feel marginalised and excluded, do want something more – which brings me back to Amy Winehouse and the issue of the culture of celebrity.
Amy Winehouse was a hero for some young people – perhaps, for those, who like her, struggled to make sense of their lives. For other young people, there are other heroes: pop stars, footballers; the people who have made it – many of whom, significantly, did not do well at school. But then, anyone who has watched ‘The X Factor’, or ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, can see that the contestants, even the deluded ones with no aptitude for anything save self-exposure, are looking, not simply for fame, but for significance; they want their lives to amount to something; they want their lives to matter.
Isn’t this what we all want? Isn’t that why we are here today on Yom Kippur; the most sacred day of the Jewish year? Whether we consider ourselves ‘religious’, ‘cultural’ or ‘secular’ Jews; whether we are Jewish or Jew-ish; whether we are Jewish first and foremost, or human beings first and foremost – or vice versa – don’t we, too, sometimes struggle to understand the purpose of our lives? Are we not, also, in search of meaning – even those among us, who find meaning in being parents? Whatever our personal circumstances, doesn’t each person want to feel that our individual lives matter – and that what we do, or don’t do, makes a difference? And so, whether questioning and sceptical, or open and ready to receive, we have gathered here to go on a journey towards atonement – at-one-ment – a journey to discover, or rediscover, ourselves, and to explore the purpose of our lives.
But then, as we embark on the journey, provided we are prepared to go with the flow, we discover something paradoxical. Because this day out of the ordinary, daily routine of our lives gives us an opportunity to be with ourselves for a while, it also has the potential of liberating us from the burden of making our lives significant. We may come here feeling unsure of ourselves, uncertain about where we are going; we may want to find answers; we may be looking for reassurance and affirmation. And then, if we allow ourselves to enter this eternal moment, we discover that eternity, for all its mystery, is a much more powerful reality. And so, we can take comfort, perhaps, in our insignificance in the grand scheme of things. A prayer, originally composed by the rabbis for Yom Kippur, addressing, Ribbon kol ha-olamim, the Sovereign of all worlds, ask these questions: Mah-anachcnu? What are we? Meh-chayyeinu? What is our life? Mah-chasdeinu? What is our love? Mah-y’shu’ateinu? What is our success? Mah-tzidkeinu? What is our justice? Mah-kocheinu? What is our endurance? Mah-g’vurateinu? What is our power? And then it goes on to say:
What can we say before you Eternal one our God and the God of our ancestors? Are not the mightiest of us as nothing before you, the famous as though they had never lived, the wise as if they had no knowledge, the discerning as if without understanding? For most of what we do is futile, and our life on earth is but a span; our superiority over other animals amounts to nothing, for all is vanity.
Like much of the liturgy of the yamim nora’im, literally, ‘awed days’, this prayer is couched in the first person plural. When it says ‘we’, it means, we human beings. As each one of us stepped into this service, bringing our questions and our doubts and our frailties with us, we became one, not simply with the Jewish people, but with humanity as a whole. Perhaps the most pressing problem of contemporary society is that so many people have lost touch with a sense of the eternal that might put their individual lives into perspective. Measured, appraised, labelled, and defined, according to judgmental criteria, which treat individuals as commodities, is it surprising that, both, those who succeed by these criteria, and those who fail to succeed, end up wondering what their lives are all about? Is it surprising, that young people, who feel dismissed, marginalised and worthless, try to distract themselves and realise themselves with dreams of fame and fortune?
Less than two weeks after the riots, a neon artwork by Tracey Emin, proclaiming the words, ‘More Passion’, was unveiled in 10 Downing Street. What message was the Prime Minister, David Cameron, sending out with this acquisition? That: despite asserting the powers of law and order against the mob, he was still in tune with the passionate beat of a more liberal society? After all, Tracey Emin may be a supporter of the Conservative Party, but she is not exactly known for being a shining example of conservative values. But look more closely: Tracey Emin’s neon messages represent her, perhaps ironic, concession to glitz and commerce – and what better way for the Prime Minister to try to catch some of the glamour, than to proclaim to the world with a neon slogan, no less, that he is an advocate of ‘More Passion’. But is he prepared; is the government prepared; are ordinary citizens, like us, prepared to put the slogans and the headlines aside, and respond to the plight of young people, and give them hope?
Britain may not, as David Cameron declared on August 15th, be ‘broken’, but it is not in perfect shape either – and there is no doubt that many people feel broken, or, feel broken-off and discarded by those in charge of the political and economic agenda. In Temple times, after the High Priest had finished making a three-fold confession, and had come out of the Holy of Holies, he would say a prayer for blessing and prosperity, peace and tranquillity, in the year ahead. Today on Yom Kippur, as we face the challenge of repairing ourselves and our lives, let us ask questions about the plight of those who are currently failed by our society, and resolve to engage ourselves in the task of social repair, so that all the citizens of Britain may enjoy, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah (29:11), acharit v’tikvah – ‘a future and a hope’. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
Yom Kippur Shacharit 5772, 8th October 2010 – 10th Tishri 5771
 Alexandra Topping on ‘Amy Winehouse’, The Guardian, Thursday, 28 July 2011.
 Amy Winehouse Obituary – The Jewish Chronicle, 29 July 2011
 Alexandra Topping on ‘Amy Winehouse’, The Guardian, Thursday, 28 July 2011.
 Amy Swan, aged 18, quoted by Alexandra Topping, The Guardian, Thursday, 28 July 2011.
 BBC News UK, 15.08.11 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14532532)
 Total London arrests on night of 8/9 August: 310; people charged in London as of 9 August: 1,032 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/aug/09/uk-riots-data-figures)
 Emil Durkheim introduced the concept of anomie in his book The Division of Labour in Society (1893). Anomie is a state where social norms are confused, unclear or not present. In 1897, Durkheim used the term again in his study on Suicide, arguing that those who are socially isolated are more likely to take their own lives.
 Ribbon kol ha-olamim is mentioned for the first time in the Talmud, in tractate Yoma 87b (Yoma is an Aramaic word, which means, literally, ‘The day’ – in Hebrew: Ha-yom). The prayer appears in the first Hebrew prayer book, Seder Rav Amram, compiled by Amram ben Sheshna (c. 860 CE).
 David Cameron, 15.08.11 – see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-14524834
 Talmud Y’rushalmi (Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud, edited in the 4th century BCE), Yoma 5:3