Going back to Israel after spending many years in the US, we were quite surprised to discover many new customs in a country which we had thought we knew really well. Recently I wrote  a post about the secular ritual of the Friday night dinner (“TGIF ISraeli Style”), and the new practice of observing  Yom Kippur is another one.

In the first year in Tel Aviv our daughters told us that they had to have bicycles for Yom Kippur, all their friends had them. That  is how we first found out that Yom Kippur had become the National Bicycle Day

Imagine a big city where on a regular day the streets are packed with noisy cars and buses, and then all of a sudden, as though by magic — everything comes to a halt and there is silence.

On Yom Kippur Eve as it gets dark,  the streets gradually become filled with happy children, and parents, on bikes, scooters, skateboards and roller blades.

Yom Kippur day is always very quiet, last year we rode our bicycles for  hours in totally silent and peaceful streets. We headed to the sea and rode along the shore before finally arriving to Hayarkon  river and then back home,  it was a once in a lifetime/ year experience.

Probably for religious people the practice of observing the holiest day of the year has not changed much throughout the years, but for me it has changed drastically. I have never fasted in my life, my formerly-religious father was adamant against it. When as a child I wished to fast, he inquired if I intended to observe any other religious precept. When I admitted that I didn’t, he said that he felt it was hypocritical to fast and suggested that instead I should find another way to ask for forgiveness. The new practice of observing Yom Kippur seems like such a way.

At the risk of sounding corny, I feel that making the city stop for one day on Yom Kippur is like asking Mother Earth for forgiveness for the other 364 days of abuse. We could see it as a variation on another significant precept in Jewish law: Shmita (translated literally as release).  According to Jewish law, every seven years the land is left to lie fallow and all agricultural activities, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting, are forbidden

On the eve of that first Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv as we walked behind our cycling girls, Dizengof street was totally quiet and  empty of cars. All of a sudden an ancient, and noisy, Volkswagen beetle crawled toward us with all its windows open. The driver of that car was the irreverent poet David Avidan. I guess that he had his own special way of atonement.

But for the rest of us, whether we fast, ride our bike or just enjoy the quiet day, in a time of pollution and the rising greenhouse effect, letting the earth rest for one day on Yom Kippur could be considered a small and necessary act of atonement:  Gmar Hatima Tova