A Tempest in Three Teapots: Yom Kippur Balls in London, New York, and Montreal

Undated advertisement in Yiddish for a Yom Kippur ball in New York City
Undated advertisement in Yiddish for a Yom Kippur ball in New York City

At the end of the 19th century a nascent tradition emerged in London, England among recent Jewish immigrants as an anti-religious celebration of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism. The event quickly spread to North America where it was taken up by other Yiddish speaking anarchists and socialists as a way of expressing their collective power in a celebratory environment and encouraging others to turn against superstition and religion.

Submitted by Jacques Roux on February 1, 2019

In 1888, a group of London “free thinkers” hosted a Yom Kippur ball, the first ever of its kind. Held in a rented hall, the ball featured anti-religious lectures, music, and refreshments for the duration of Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement], from Kol Nidre to Neila. The advertised event aroused the ire of the local Jewish community.

Despite opposition and efforts to disrupt the event, the idea soon spread to America. A Yom Kippur ball was held in New York in 1889, and similar Yom Kippur events took place in subsequent years in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and other Jewish centres in the New World. Rather than a one-time fringe event, these Yom Kippur Balls attracted prominent leaders from Jewish socialist circles and enjoyed mass support over a number of years. The annual event received coverage in the press, including the nonJewish English-language dailies, the anglo-Jewish weeklies, and the Yiddish-language Orthodox, Socialist and anarchist periodicals.

The Yom Kippur ball tradition spanned almost two decades. Waning support, and a general decline in the anarchist movement, coupled with widespread anti-anarchist sentiment by the first years of the twentieth century, marked the decline of the Yom Kippur ball. By 1905, the Yom Kippur ball had generally been reduced to small local gatherings.

But not in Montreal, Canada: whereas in other Jewish centers such as London and New York the anarchist custom of holding an annual Yom Kippur ball had pretty much come and gone by 1905, Montreal free-thinkers held their first, and only Yom Kippur ball in 1905, a decade and a half later than its English and American counterparts.

The London and New York Yom Kippur Balls have received attention in widely read historical works such as Moses Rischin’s The Promised City and Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers. These works have portrayed the Yom Kippur ball as a fleeting phenomenon centred first in London, and then in New York. Generally overlooked have been its later and smaller-scale manifestations in other, smaller Jewish centres such as Montreal.

This article will examine the development of the Yom Kippur ball as a movement, and detail the yet untold story of its short-lived manifestation in Montreal. It will call into question the characterization of the Yom Kippur ball as a passing fad, and present it instead as a fixture on the early radical scene in London and New York. It will discuss the various factors that led to the short life of the Yom Kippur ball in Montreal in contrast with London and New York.

By way of introduction in part I, I shall present some background on the Jewish anarchist movement and its activities. Part II will present an overview of the rise and decline of the Yom Kippur balls in London in New York. Part III will detail the Montreal context, and its Yom Kippur ball. In part IV, I shall conclude by offering an analysis of the triumph and subsequent defeat of this radical, anti-religious movement.