I think this must be the last taxi out of Tel Aviv on Erev Yom Kippur.
The streets have mostly emptied – and already a few bicyclists are on Ayalon speeding toward the setting sun.
That’s the thing about Israel. The whole country grinds to a halt on Yom Kippur – It’s like the day after the apocalypse, a stillness falls over the country, shops shutter, the radio goes silent, there’s nothing — NOTHING — on TV unless you pay extra for satellite television.
But, the other thing about Israel is this place isn’t monolithic: There are people who fast. And people who don’t. There are people who pray. And people who won’t. And while the cars hold their parking spaces for 25 hours, in places like Tel Aviv, out come the bicycles.
It’s amazing to see, actually: From old men in neon orange short-shorts to little girls in pink helmets, to fathers and mothers chasing their kids who are riding three wheelers, to teenage boys in Maccabi Tel Aviv jerseys trying to keep up with their pretty girlfriends, the highway becomes Tour De France.
But, that means we have to get off the road before sunset, before the holy day begins.
“Are you fasting?” the driver asks me.
“Eh,” he says before I can answer. “Fast if you want. Don’t fast if you don’t want. Let me tell you a story: Every year on Yom Kippur me and my buddies from the army would barbecue on the beach – Every single year. I brought the steaks — sometimes chorizos after Yossi gt back from Argentina. We drank beer, and listened to music and smoked cigarettes from noon until three stars. Except then one year, Yossi got a little religious on us, and he said ‘halas, let’s go to synagogue this year.’ So we did. We all went.”
“How was it?” I asked.
“Ahh… first, ask me what year it was?”
“1973, Kapara! 1973. Do you know what happened on Yom Kippur in 1973?”
Do I know what happened on Yom Kippur in 1973? While most of Jewish Israel – including these army buddies — were in synagogue on the holiest day of the year, Egypt and Syria launched a strike against Israel.
Do I know what happened on Yom Kippur in 1973? There are men with broken laugh who held their friends in trenches and watched them die. There are women who never saw their husband after their last kiss. Therre are babies who were born just a few months later with no fathers.
Do I know what happened on Yom Kippur in 1973. We were almost brought to our knees. We almost lost that war. We almost lost everything. Even the right to fast on Yom Kippur … or not fast, the right to stay in synagogue, or ride bikes down Ayalon.
“Wow,” I said.
“So? You see? We never fasted again. We never went to synagogue on Yom Kippur. And every year since, we meet on the beach and barbecue like we did every year before that one terrible Yom Kippur when we went to synagogue like everbody else”
“Wow,” I said again.
“Eh,” the driver said as he slowed down for the exit. “That’s just how it is Israel depends on our diversity. It’s why we thrive despite all odds.”