Kol Nidre and other peculiarities

 A clip is circulating among alumni of the Fall River Jewish community that has Cantor Marcus Gerlich along with the Temple Beth El choir. singing Kol Nidre,
It brings back memories from the best of my Jewish youth. Cantor Gerlich was a fine teacher and role model, who saw me and many others through the trauma of Bar Mitzvah. 
There isn't much if anything left of the Fall River Jewish community. It uses only a part, and that only occasionally of the iconic edifice that was built from the 1920s to the 1950s. Those remaining are mostly people who live in nearby towns, or an aging group that comes back for reunions.
The clip also brought back memories of uncertainties associated with Kol Nidre. From my earliest memories, I had wondered about the meaning of prayers in a language I could articulate but not understand. I would sneak a look at the English translation to see what I was saying, and the translation for Kol Nidre made me wonder.
It's still the case. I can now understand the portion of Kol Nidre that is Hebrew, and even some of the larger portion that is Aramaic.
Cantor Gerlich's clip also led me to the internet to learn more about Kol Nidre, and to discuss the issue in a neighborhood that does not lack for Rabbinical scholars.
The passage has a long and interesting history, which leads to the conclusion that its place as the initial and key element in the synagogue ritual of Yom Kippur is due more to the melody than its content.
The prominence of Aramaic may mean that the vast majority of Jews who listen to Kol Nidre, and even many of the cantors who chant it, do not know what they are hearing or singing. 
Among the comments by those who claim to know is that the Aramaic of Kol Nidre is ungrammatical, but that any repair would destroy the melody. Perhaps, but as I understand the history of Aramaic it is like Yiddish and a number of other languages that have existed in different populations with a variety of dialects serving different places, cultures, and times. The grammar of Aramaic may be more flexible than anything that could pass muster in an Academy of Aramaic, if there is such a thing.
The principal problem with Kol Nidre is its substance. 
As in much of Jewish ritual, the first words have become its headline and label. Kol Nidre means All vows. What follows is not so much a prayer as a statement renouncing of all what may be translated as promises, commitments, oaths, obligations, or pledges. 
Rabbinical commentators have tackled the issue, and they are good in seeing things in verbiage that do not exist. They explain Kol Nidre as a house cleaning appropriate to Yom Kippur, when a Jew embarks on a new year with a clean slate of obligations.
However, anti-Semites have seen Kol Nidre as something else, i.e., the capacity of Jews to renounce their obligations, and to thereby quality for the designation as untrustworthy.
The melody of Kol Nidre is what is important. It is moving, and fitting to the onset of the synagogue ritual of Yom Kippur. It sets the mood for prayers on the holiest of Judaism's days, whether or not the congregation or the singer is concentrating on the words. Indeed, the nature of a chant gets in the way of understanding the words, even to ears that might understand them. What's happening is a mood setting for a religious service devoted to the most intense soul searching. It's not an academic seminar lending itself to discussion and argument..
The function and substance of Kol Nidre isn't the only peculiarity associated with the Jews, or our predecessors among Judeans, Israelites, Hebrews, and who knows what before them. We've lived among others, mingled and mixed with them, while some of us have sought to remain apart for what may be at least 3,000 years. The far background isn't all that clear or certain. We've be arguing among ourselves since the get go, while some of us have always been demanding unity.
If we have an essence, it is at least partly our variety. We span geography and cultures, and are a tense mixture of ethnicity and religion. The ethnicity has been open to outsiders since the beginning, as shown in the Biblical book of Ruth, which celebrates the coming of an outsider, and Ezra, which denounces ethnic mixing, while suggesting that it is inevitable. 
Some families accept intermarriage, perhaps while regretting it, and others insist on guarding the gates with intense suspicion of those wanting to enter. 
There have been multiple languages and dialects. 
It is arguable that some variety of Aramaic rather than Hebrew, would have been most appropriate for modern Israel. It would have avoided the problem whereby some of the intensely religious refuse to use Hebrew for secular matters. Among those who may think in those terms are the people I meet in the waiting room of my family physician. The clinic is in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, and there are likely to be people around me speaking to their children in American-accented Yiddish.
Israel's tense existence is perhaps the most prominent current expression of Jewish peculiarity. Not only does the country officially aspire to what for some is the impossible combination of being both Jewish and democratic, but it has come to embrace a notion of being without borders.
Most obvious is the lack of clear borders between Israel and Palestinians. There is also the fuzzy line between Israelis and overseas Jews. Whether other Jews agree or not, Israeli officials often express the view that it is somehow their country as well as ours. Overseas activists have an opportunity to express themselves here, and some undefined measure of influence, but not a formal vote or veto.
Our relations with Palestinians are the most pressing. Outsiders and insiders see the situation as intolerable, but are far from agreement on what should be and how it should be achieved. Dispute ranges about sizable neighborhoods of Jerusalem as well as large and tiny settlements throughout the West Bank. All told, some 800,000 Jews are living throughout what Palestinians claim as their own.
One can guess that Palestinian trumpeting of a UNESCO's decision against a Judaic history on the Temple Mount will set back any peace prospects that might be perceived.. 
None of which amounts to anything more peculiar than partially or largely autonomous Jewish communities living from ancient times with many good years and some bad  across the Middle East and Europe in one or another kingdom, empire, or princely holding.
No one should dare predict the future of such phenomenon. Kol Nidre exists amidst its own disputes, even while surviving since the time when most Jews may have understood its language.
Comments welcome.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem