Yom Kippur is surely the most unique day we observe here in Israel. I’ve seen nothing quite like it wherever I’ve travelled in the world and more than any other day of the year it designates this country as the Jewish state.
It’s also one of my favourite days of the year.
Around 3:00 p.m. on the eve of the holy day, everything starts shutting down. All airports close and there’s no commercial flights in and out of the country until late the next evening. The same is true for all forms of public transportation. Stores, restaurants, malls and the like are shuttered. All radio and television stations stop broadcasting. The cable networks broadcast the same picture on all channels.
As the onset of Yom Kippur nears, car traffic begins thinning out and the streets become still. I love the palpable quiet as it begins to settle in. With somewhere between 60 to 70 per cent of Jewish Israelis fasting on Yom Kippur, including many who define themselves as secular, people noiselessly but quickly consume their last meals before the fast begins.
Around 6:00 p.m. traffic stops completely in all Jewish neighbourhoods, except for ambulances, police and fire department vehicles and the occasional minibus ferrying medical personnel to and from hospitals and clinics.
While the majority of Israelis begin their 25 hours of fasting in synagogues, joining in Kol Nidrei, a prayer annulling vows made before God during the previous year, at the very same time another thoroughly Israeli phenomenon kicks off.
With almost no cars on the streets, the thoroughfares surrender to another form of traffic – bicycles. During the weeks before Yom Kippur bike stores enjoy a significant spike in business as many secular Israelis mostly, but not exclusively, young, take advantage of the absence of motor vehicles to ride the roads freely. Parents teach young tots to ride their first bikes with trainer wheels. Teenagers race to and fro. A friend religiously rides from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and back every Yom Kippur on Highway 1, the main artery connecting the two cities. And he doesn’t do so alone.
Every city has its character, but even in Jerusalem where I live, with its markedly higher rate of synagogue goers, bikes are everywhere most of Yom Kippur. But coming out of synagogues at the conclusion of evening services on erev Yom Kippur, streams of pedestrians temporarily take over the avenues. For two hours or so, Emeq Refaim, the main street running through a neighbourhood known as the German Colony is packed with people enjoying leisurely strolls, meeting friends and acquaintances, slowly making their way home for an early night in bed.
For me Yom Kippur is a different religious experience. I enjoy the hours of prayer and study in my Reform synagogue. I acknowledge the light-headedness that sets in mid-afternoon, when the still intense September Jerusalem heat comes into play. I await the concluding Neilah service – figuratively having our future sealed as the day nears its end, reaching one crescendo followed by another before the shofar is sounded for one last prolonged sounding for this season and we here in Jerusalem proclaim “ le-shanah ha-ba’ah be-Yerushalayim”, “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
And then there’s a quick return to everyday Jerusalem. Regular traffic and beeping, initial phone calls to loved ones enquiring how their fast had been, the first radio news summarizing how many people had been evacuated to hospitals by ambulances because of dehydration and fainting during the fast, how many were in bike accidents and how many babies were born.
And by the time I’m home enjoying my first cup of tea and some honey cake, I hear next door neighbours busily erecting their sukkot.
If you’ve never been here this special time of year you should plan to do so.