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Being Jewish Is Easy In Israel, Even On Yom Kippur


This was cross-posted by Brian of London at Israellycool.

(This post, describing a typical Yom Kippur in Tel Aiv, stands in stark contrast to the narrative advanced by the Guardian’s recent photo essay of Yom Kippur, which included only Ultra-Orthodox Jews, mostly performing ancient rituals which the overwhelming majority of Jews – both in Israel and the Diaspora – have never performed.)

Yom Kippur 2010, North Tel Aviv

Tonight the Yom Kippur Day of Atonement for Jews begins. Many people know that Jews don’t eat or drink for around 25 hours (sun down to sun down) but few know what actually happens on Yom Kippur in modern, non-religious, Israel. What I’m going to write below, many Jews in the UK don’t know. I didn’t know this till I moved here!

Maybe it isn’t so clear to Jews or others outside of Israel what happens on Yom Kippur in Israel. Cars stop for the day. They just stop. It looks like a post apocalypse movie where the oil ran out one night and all we have left are bicycles and roller blades.

As far as I can tell (people are very vague on this) there really is no enforceable law against driving, it just isn’t done. The police could stop you, but they’d just ask why you were driving, tell you to be careful and let you go. There is no religious police to enforce this kind of thing in Israel as it isn’t a religious state.

Now it is true that this happens on every Sabbath in places where observant, religious Jews live in large majority: parts of Jerusalem, highly religious towns like Tzfat (Safed, Zefad, whatever) and many others: but on a regular Sabbath in Tel Aviv Friday night traffic is bad and the restaurants serving pork or shell-fish are full to overflowing (some of them like to combine pork, prawns and dairy products in one dish to break as many of the Kosher rules as possible in one go).

On Yom Kippur, however, everything stops. Non-observant Jews and observant Jews alike, just hide the car keys. For sure, if your kid falls off his bike or your wife goes into labor and needs the hospital nobody (from both those communities) would think twice about driving the car to the hospital.

But on Yom Kippur the non-religious Jews just organize their lives such that they don’t need to drive.

For sure most of them will not fast, and they probably stock up on downloaded movies or DVD’s because the state TV channels shut down (but there’s plenty of other cable channels).

But they just don’t DRIVE their cars. The air smells good, the visibility gets better and from sundown to sundown the streets are full of people strolling or cycling along 10 lane highways. People have found a way to organize their lives that for just one day a year, nobody drives except for emergencies.

I left my apartment to have a look last year and I saw one pickup truck and 3 police cars moving. Slowly. Through the crowds of children on bikes on roads equivalent to the M1 or the London North Circular.

Below is a slide show of what that looks like in Tel Aviv that I found on YouTube, there are many more videos but this kind of gives a good idea.

Slideshow Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv on YouTube

Video of streets without cars

So why is being Jewish so different when you’re in Israel. Well there has never in my recollection (and when I’ve searched) been a Jew in England who’s publicly got upset by anyone eating, even in front of him, on Yom Kippur. Jews have never, and will never I assure you, ask you to stop driving for a day. It just won’t ever happen. Even in our own country this isn’t a law, it’s just something the vast majority of Jews want to do because over here, it just feels right.

That is the difference between living as a Jew in England and as a Jew in Israel: here we can just BE Jewish and the calendar and the customs and norms push us into being culturally Jewish even if we don’t want to study the Torah 9 hours a day.

Jews don’t want anywhere else, we just want this one tiny little place to feel Jewish in.

Gmar Chatima Tova to you all!

5 replies »

  1. “For sure most of them will not fast, ”
    Actually 61 percent of Israeli Jews fast on Yom Kippur. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3955440,00.html

    Yesterday was a beautiful day in Israel. People walked or biked instead of driving. People had time to greet each other and wish them a happy new year and gmar hatimah tovah.

    I see Yom Kippur as Israel’s contribution to the Green movement.

  2. Yes, I may have been a bit heavy handed with that phrase, I was referring to the people in the neighborhood I live in specifically which is about as non-observant as they come. Fasting is a high proportion than I realised when I wrote that the first time and that is a good thing!

    I’m not a believer in man made global warming, that’s for sure, but there is no doubt that stopping cars for one day makes the air smell better and look better within 4 or 5 hours. It’s simply amazing and the joy on the faces of the kids when they can ride anywhere they like is so much fun.

    Living in England I just didn’t know about this: I had no idea that Yom Kippur is known as the “Bicycle Holiday” among kids!

  3. some of them like to combine pork, prawns and dairy products in one dish to break as many of the Kosher rules as possible in one go

    Oh, how naughty!

    Love the “Bicycle Holiday” too!

    Should I emphasise that the pork etc isn’t for Yom Kippur?

  4. Yom Kippur is so much, much more than “Israel’s contribution to the Green Movement”. The reason that Israelis , including those who define themselves as secular, don’t drive on Yom Kippur is that the cultural power of its beautiful rituals and liturgy are respected and appreciated even by those who normally take pleasure in scoffing and mocking the very tradition that has enabled enables there to be a Jewish state and remains at the core of its institutions and values. Yom Kippur is a tradition thousands of years old. To participate to the full in it is to take part over a period of 26 fasting hours as part of a synagogue community sharing the singing and the moving moments of memorial prayer for our beloved dead, repeating prayers which consist of awe-inspiring reminders of values and aspirations beyond those of the here and now.

    Yes, it is wonderful to be in a community which is part of a country which as a whole reveres and observes the beauty and the solemnity of that day, on whatever level. The national observance of mutual respect is not something regularly celebrated in most nations, where the best that can be expected for national religious rituals is either observance or tolerance.

    If only secular Israel could come to acknowledge that the whole country could share a day of equal beauty and release from the endless materialism of our daily lives every single week if the same respect was shown for the institution of Shabbat as is so beautifully shown for Yom Kippur. Imagine a country which organized itself so that there would be communal facilities for shared meals and hospitality so that all visitors wherever they were in Israel could be sure of a welcome and a share in the Shabbat celebrations in each community.

    The Shabbat and Yom Kippur are both part of Judaism’s– not just Israel’s-gift to the world. The concept of a day of rest, and a nationally observed day of rest combined with reflection, recognition of our personal and communal shortcomings, and of our destiny not being entirely in our own hands. After all, it was the Romans who regarded the Jews as people who wasted a seventh of their lives. Sadly, most of us these days are with the Romans. I’m not one of them.

  5. Judy: It is the very freedom for Jews to live their own lives on a basis of their own values that Israel represents. To each his own.