Starting in London in 1888, and spreading to New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Montreal, and Havana, among other cities, Yom Kippur balls were a short-lived but highly publicized phenomenon in the radical Jewish world of the turn of the twentieth century. These events often lasted from Kol Nidre until Neilah the following day, and they were not only times for dancing and eating, but also for the study of anarchist propaganda, for listening to lectures, and for gathering with the radical Jewish community. The balls were put on by anarchist groups, and despite widespread opposition, they attracted prominent leaders from Jewish radical circles, enjoyed mass support, and received coverage from the Jewish and non-Jewish press.
The excerpt here is from the 2011 novel A Bintel Brief by John Nathan, which is a work of fiction based on the historical figure Abraham Cahan, the famous editor-in-chief of the New York socialist Yiddish daily newspaper, the Forverts, from 1903 to 1946. In this passage, Cahan describes his experiences at these rollicking, irreverent Yom Kippur balls. The image in this resource is an advertisement for a 1907 Yom Kippur Picnic held by the Progressive Library of New York, an anarchist group involved with Emma Goldman’s publication Mother Earth. The picnic was held in Liberty Park in New York City. According to Candace Falk in this biographical article on Emma Goldman, Goldman herself came to the party dressed as a nun and performed a dance she called the “anarchist slide.”
Suggested Activities: Have your students discuss the following questions: Could the Yom Kippur Balls be called “Jewish” events? How does that change or confirm how you think of the category of “Jewish” ritual? Are they an observance of Yom Kippur, or a violation of Yom Kippur, or both? What is the essence of the holiday, and how is it honored or violated?
The balls attracted serious opposition. Often noisy crowds gathered outside of the halls in attempts to disrupt the proceedings, and on more than one occasion, police were called in to diffuse the situation. Invite your students to imagine themselves as participants in the Yom Kippur ball scenario. Ask them to create protest signs with slogans that are either (a) anti-religious, to be displayed inside the ballroom or (b) in opposition to the Yom Kippur balls.