Yom Kippur in Israel

The holiday season. In America, we have Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. Christian, Jewish, or whatever, things slow down in the office and in general. The phone rings less at work, people are off, school’s out so there’s less traffic. Here, it’s the chagim. They come quickly-Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and soon after Sukkot, then Simchat Torah. So people tell me, nothing much happens during the chagim in this country so if you need something done, best to get it done beforehand or you’ll have to wait a month. I was really hoping to start my Ulpan beforehand but, alas, “achrei hachagim”, they told me (after the holidays). I have just over three more weeks until I really begin learning Hebrew and it can’t come soon enough.

One of the big reasons I wanted to come to Israel was to experience the holidays here. As they approached, I kept thinking of the best way to spend them, to really feel them. To go to Jerusalem, the holy city? To stay in Tel Aviv where the fast pace of the city actually slows down for once? It turns out you can’t really go wrong; whatever you do, you’re among Jews. For Yom Kippur, I went to the family of one of my co-workers, Roni, who live on a moshav about 20 minutes from Tel Aviv, next to the city of Petach Tikva. One thing I found interesting is that everyone here seemed to know exactly when the chag (and fast) was to begin and end. In America, those around me have sort of started fasting at some general time in the early evening before going to services (whenever those began) and would end roughly 24 or 25 hours later. When I asked Roni what time dinner was, she said “there is no dinner”. When I asked what the heck she was talking about, she said that the fast began at 5 so we’d have to eat around 3; “dinner” would be too late. For the Kol Nidre service, we went to a synagogue her father’s parents helped found, along with other Romanian immigrants. It was the type of place I’ve only seen in Israel and New York City. Unlike your big suburban one-stop shop synagogue complete with social hall, kindergarten, and administrative wing, this was one room with benches facing various ways and the bimah in the middle (with the women’s seating upstairs of course. This is Israel, not too many Reform and Conservative shuls). I’m fairly used to it by now but I still remember how shocking it was on Year Course when I first saw an Israeli siddur, with Hebrew on the right page…and Hebrew on the left page. No flowery language or hard-to-read transliterations. One interesting moment came halfway through the service when the lights inexplicably went out. Well, interesting to me anyway.

Congregations’ thoughts: “Oy oy oy!”
My thoughts: “It’s going in the BLOG!”

The rabbi didn’t miss a beat. He proceeded to the closest window where the light came in and continued chanting until the lights came on a few minutes later. Well handled.

The most unique part of Yom Kippur in Israel? No cars on the roads. I’m not sure how this tradition originated but at least in Tel Aviv and surely in many other places, nobody drives. The roads are taken over by kids on their bicycles as far as the eye can see. It’s an amazing thing to behold; I would have loved to have gotten a picture except that I didn’t have my camera, and if I did, I wouldn’t have used it in public with so many observant people around.

With such a large percentage of the population here being secular, there are a lot of traditions which really have nothing to do with the true purpose of the chag. Religiously motivated or not, they definitely make you feel the holiday.

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