I know most Jews call Yom Kippur by other names, but here in Jerusalem, the most apt name is ‘Day of No Traffic Lights’.
There are no traffic lights because there’s no traffic on Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. The city just turns off the lights for 25 hours.
Imagine—an entire country without any motor vehicle traffic apart from emergency vehicles and security patrols. The quiet is absolutely stunning.
Starting from sundown on erev Yom Kippur, 25 hours of blissful silence. Israel off the grid. Think of the negative carbon footprint impact!
No traffic; radio and TV stations are silent; no phones ringing; no home appliances whirring; no airplanes overhead—you can actually hear the wind in the trees and the song of the birds.
Pedestrians share the road with bicycles ridden by hundreds of secular Israelis who savor the day as a safe opportunity to try out their biking skills with no annoying traffic lights or crazy Israeli drivers. But the overwhelming sense is of a people taking a complete day to evaluate and perhaps change their lives.
Walking to Kol Nidre, the streets are thronged with people clad in white, to signify purity and a withdrawal for one day from the vanities of our usual fancy clothing.
Every synagogue is packed to overflowing, and several hundred community centers around the country also offer Yom Kippur services with emphasis on discussion and openness for those who might never before stepped foot in a synagogue.
After the Kol Nidre prayers are over, it’s as if the entire city spills out onto the streets. Strolling along in the middle of streets usually clogged with cars is the main pastime as people saunter off home, greeting friends along the way.
This Yom Kippur, the weather was a perfect 78 degrees. Last year, I spent the closing Neilah service of Yom Kippur at a synagogue just down the street, as it was too hot to trek back down to my regular shul after the break.
As I took a seat at the very back of that neighborhood congregation an elderly woman was wheeled in by her son who parked her wheelchair just in front of me. Her fingers were severely misshapen and she wore thick glasses. She carefully unfolded a copy of the Amidah part of the Neilah (concluding) service that had been blown up on large sheets of paper. Next, she carefully extracted a magnifying glass from a little box and oblivious to the Chazan, proceeded to painstakingly slide the magnifying glass over every word of the prayers. She completed her reading just as the congregation came to the closing verses and she joined in the fervent singing of ‘Next year in a Rebuilt Jerusalem.’ She even managed to clap as the men danced in a lively circle to express joy at having been given another opportunity to make amends before God.
After the piercing tones of the shofar marked the conclusion of another ‘Day of No Traffic Lights’ and the congregation clamored out of the doors to get home for refreshments, half a dozen secular people from the neighborhood were arriving, hoping to hear the shofar.
This particular congregation finished a few minutes before the appointed time for the end of the holiday, so the neighbors were disappointed to have missed it, but another group was still praying in another part of the building, and the outsiders quickly made their way down the stairs to take in the ram’s horn tradition.
Before I even made it home, a few cars were already on the streets and the ‘Day of No Traffic Lights’ was no more.