A reader who's spending the Days of Awe in rural Japan asked me for Yom Kippur resources. He's considering holding a minyan, or at least a study group, in his home on the holiday; he doesn't have a local Jewish community, or wide-ranging Judaic bookstore, at his disposal. What, he asked, can I point him toward that would help him with his holiday observance?
It's a great question, and I thought perhaps my answers to him might be interesting to others, so I'm sharing them here. First, here are a couple of overviews of the liturgy: one from Chabad and one from MyJewishLearning. And Rabbi Scheinerman (I linked to her meditations on Psalm 27 a year or two ago) offers a good overview of the holiday on her site, along with some home-based ritual suggestions.
As a side note, if you have the time and resources to pick up a machzor or two, by all means do. It's worth owning a few, and the more one studies the High Holiday liturgy, the more interesting and meaningful services are likely to be. When I used to go with my sister to the Brookline Havurah Minyan we used Machzor L'Yamim Nora'im, augmented with additional readings and songs (for instance, "Shekhina, m'kor chayyenu" from the Israeli siddur Kavanat Halev.) I expect the Reconstructionist option, also called Machzor Leyamim Nora'im, is good. And if you're Renewal-minded, I hear the machzor created by the Aquarian Minyan is excellent.
But perhaps you, like my correspondent in Japan, aren't in a position to pad your bookshelves right now. In that case, here are some online resources that might be useful.
The first resource I want to offer is Eli Siegel's machzor, which includes variations on several of the major prayers. The machzor is entirely in English, and mostly in rhymed verse; it was clearly designed for families with small children. But his version of the "Hineni" prayer is sweet, and he does a nice job with "We are like clay." By the by, that prayer -- usually titled "Like clay in the hands of the potter" -- can be found online in Hebrew here, along with some English-language exploration of the poem and its metaphors.
There are five prayers that are most central to my Yom Kippur observance: Kol Nidre, Al Chet, the Vidui, Unetaneh Tokef, and Avinu Malkeinu. So I tried to find online resources for each of those prayers:
As far as Kol Nidre goes, I love the practice of inviting everyone present to join in singing it together. Here's sheet music for that. I also wrote a poem that serves as a variation on the prayer, which has been used as a liturgical reading in some congregations, and which is online here: Kol Nidre.
Here's an Al Chet practice that can be very moving. Before the holiday begins, give everyone four index cards. (It may be easiest to use cards of four different colors.) On one card, write down a way that you feel you have sinned against yourself this year. On the next, a way you feel you have sinned against your community. On the third, a way you feel you have sinned against the earth. And on the fourth, a way you feel you have sinned against God. Collect everyone's cards into four bundles (one for each type of sin) before Kol Nidre. When you reach the "Al Chet" prayer in the liturgy, distribute the cards anonymously, and let people read them aloud, interspersed with sections of the traditional prayer. (If you're doing a full day of services and will be saying "Al Chet" multiple times, you can use one bundle of cards during each service.)
For the Vidui, or confessional prayer: Reb Goldie Milgram has a terrific meditation on that prayer here. And my friend and fellow Western Massachusetts blogger boy howdy posted a beautiful, and rather personal, variation on the vidui last year. Perhaps reading his will inspire you to pen your own.
The text of the Unetanah Tokef prayer can be found here. I've never seen a successful reworking of that prayer (the original has such power, it's difficult to adapt) though Linda Hirschhorn wrote a beautiful sermon about it.
As for Avinu Malkeinu, my spiritual director, Rabbi Burt Jacobson, wrote an English-language variant on this prayer which I think is very beautiful. It's online here.
(Edited to add:) At the start of 5768 I wrote a first-person Al Chet, which is here: Al Chet Shechatati Lefanecha / על חטא שחטאתי לפניך. It's at once a poem (arising out of personal experience and sentiment) and a prayer (meant to be davened, not just appreciated on aesthetic merits) and you're welcome to use it, share it, and reprint it as long as my name and this blog address are listed with it.
(Edited to add:) At the start of 5769 I wrote an interpretive version of the Hineni prayer which is traditionally chanted at the start of the Musaf (additional) service on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You can find it here: Hineni: Here I Stand. As always, you're welcome to use it if it speaks to you, and to reprint it as long as my name and blog address are attached.
When I think about the challenges of leading a small ad-hoc minyan on Yom Kippur, I think of my teacher Reb Zalman's exhortations that we not content ourselves with the written words on the page, but add our kavanah (mindful intentions) in order to reconstitute the "freeze-dried liturgy" into real worship. And that, in turn, puts me in mind of this Hasidic tale about a boy with a flute, and the Ba'al Shem Tov, on Yom Kippur. (Here's a short-and-sweet variation.)
If you're interested in revisiting the traditional prophetic readings for Yom Kippur, here's a rendition of the haftarah reading for Yom Kippur as translated by Rabbi Arthur Waskow. And here's another, rendered by Rabbi Shefa Gold. If you're more interested in other kinds of text study, here's another piece by Rabbi Burt Jacobson which explores some of the Ba'al Shem Tov's teachings, intended to be read/studied on Yom Kippur: The Ba'al Shem Tov on the Transformation of Suffering.
Looking for personal explorations of, and engagement with, this holiday and its liturgy? You might find meaning in Laurel Snyder's To Pardon All Our Fucking Iniquities, an essay in Killing the Buddha that's subtitled "A half-Jew writes her own Yom Kippur prayer." Or A Christian Observes Yom Kippur, an essay by Harvey Cox, a Christian professor of divinity who's married to a Jewish woman. (I reviewed one of his books here a while back.) Seeing ourselves through someone else's eyes can be a powerful and transformative experience.
On a semi-related note, perhaps the most fascinating thing I found in my searches was this: Christians in Solidarity with Jews on Yom Kippur. A group of Canadian Christian and Jewish clergy came together to create a liturgy which Christians could use on Yom Kippur to help them feel more aligned with the Jewish roots of their tradition. This site includes an explanation of that process, followed by the liturgy, which features English translations of many of the YK prayers. It's designed for Christians, obviously, but I think it's an interesting resource for Jews as well.
Have other YK resources I didn't think to list? Drop me a link; I'm always happy to have more good stuff in my toolbox. And regardless of how you mark Yom Kippur this year, may your observance be meaningful, and draw you nearer to becoming the person you most want to be.
Edited to add: The Jewish Renewal machzor I mentioned, above, is available for $10 from The Aquarian Minyan at PO Box 7224, Berkeley CA 94707.
Edited in 2010 to add: Early in the morning on 9/17/10, the day which will become Yom Kippur at sundown, I'll be posting a set of new and updated resources for Yom Kippur, here: More resources for Yom Kippur. (That link won't work until the morning of the 17th in my time zone, but once it's live, it'll stay that way. Thanks for your patience.)