Ultra-Orthodox Jews of the Hassidic sect Vizhnitz gather on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean sea as they participate in a Tashlich ceremony in Herzeliya, Israel, on Sept. 24, 2012. (AP)
As a non-Jew in Tel Aviv last year for Yom Kippur—the holiest date marking the Jewish calendar—I expected a somber Day of Atonement with fasting by the orthodox observant, and synagogues overwhelmed by those perennial visitors popping in once per year. The real surprise I encountered was the alternative side of this high holiday as experienced by secular Israelis.
Living in Tel Aviv with my Jerusalem-born partner, we never tired of discussing the startling differences between the two most populous cities in a country only the size of New Jersey. The humid White City flanking the Mediterranean, with clean Bauhaus lines echoing against the soaring geometric towers of the high tech industry, provided a bubble for the country’s secular, creative, young and alternative. Fashionable Tel Avivians and their suitably trendy dogs love spending their Saturdays people-watching from cafe tables on the main drag of Rothschild Boulevard, before lounging lazily next to the sea.
Yet only a short hour drive away, the ancient stone city of Jerusalem so weighted by history in the Judean mountains seemed a different country altogether. Women wearing hijabs bought produce near Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem, just a short distance through cobblestoned passageways to cross-bearing visitors entering Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Leaving the Old City walls behind, our occasional detour through the ultra-orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood left me marveling at the “modesty signs” posted to deter skinny-jeaned tourists like me. As the sun began to fade each Friday night and the transportation stopped running for Shabbat, the black clothes camouflaged those religious Jews walking in the middle of the street, boldly challenging cars like ours driving across town late again for a family dinner.
On Yom Kippur, however, the usual distinctions between neighborhoods and cities, religious or secular appeared less pronounced than normal. The holiday overwhelmed all of Israel —even penetrating the bubble of renegade Tel Aviv—since the entire country completely stops for the holiest day of the year. The perpetual hum of traffic outside our window in the center of town, usually punctuated by impatient honking or angry yelling in Hebrew, came to a complete halt. Except for the occasional ambulance or other emergency vehicle, all roads were clear and an unnatural silence hung over the city. The airport closed for 24 hours at an unfathomable expense, and all stores and kiosks shut their doors according to the law forbidding business to operate on this holy day. Unimaginable in the digital age, the public and private radio and TV joined the massive shutdown, and even some Web sites managed to deny access, directing people to prayer and fasting instead.
But without high-tech conveniences, what is a (mostly) secular city to do? With the roads free of traffic, it seemed as if all inhabitants of Tel Aviv were unplugged and outside, spending time with their families on their self-propelled vehicles of choice. Bikes and skateboards, scooters and rollerblades ruled the road, with parents resting easy for a change as their kids played in the middle of the street.
Carefully calculating our timing just before the holiday subdued all machines, we arrived to the corner bike share station early enough to snag two green bikes. We steered around groups of giggling children and dodged gossiping elderly standing along the main artery of the city, pedaling faster for wind to cool the stifling September heat.
Finally we reached the tunnel normally clogged with cars merging onto the biggest highway in the country, now a slide propelling us into our playground for the day. The endless road was eerily still as we careened north, purposely breaking all traffic laws while driving on the wrong side of the road and laughing at imaginary commuters.
The real significance of the Jewish holiday was not completely lost on me, as a sociologist mesmerized by such a multifarious country. I dressed modestly the night before to blend into the back of our neighborhood synagogues, fascinated by the distinct Ashkenazi and Sephardic rituals. The following night after the shofar (ram’s horn) symbolically sounded the end of the fast and the re-opening of the roads, I felt truly blessed for the invitation to share homemade gefilte fish in Jerusalem at a traditional family meal.
But in between those sunsets, it was clear that anyone, even an outsider could feel the magic of the Day of Atonement. While pedaling down the wrong side of the road, I regretted that the entire world couldn’t share in the experience of a 24 hour massive shutdown, forcing everyone outside to spend time together for just one day each year. With the vision of the clear highway filling the horizon ahead, I was just sorry that Yom Kippur had to end.