Our family is a family of traditions. We have traditions for just about everything and our friends and family are aware of this and even tell us that they expect to see our photos. Over the years many friends have asked me: How do you get your kids to go with you? How do you get them to smile for the photos (ice-cream always helped with that)? How do you get them to wear what you want?
Many of our traditions have to do with the Jewish year and Israel. Every year at Rosh Hashana, we take family photos (with the help of our tripod and timer) dressed in matching colors with props such as: a shofar, pomegranates, apples, honey. On the morning of erev Sukkot – always waiting for that day – we go to Jerusalem’s Machane Yehudah shuk to choose our set of Arba’at Haminim. On Chanukah, we give our kids different chocolates each night (we don’t give gifts) and every Tu B’shvat we look for places to plant trees. Each February we are known for wearing red shirts and jeans and taking photos in different forests filled with the red calaniot of the winter. We now have 17 years of them hanging on the wall. Planning our theme for our Purim mishloach manot and/or family costume is a year-long discussion. Of course, Pesach has many traditions, for our family my husband still orchestrates the whole search for the chametz the night before. He wraps each piece of bread in newspaper and then plants them throughout the house and always forgets exactly where they all are and drives us all crazy. Shavuot brings about all the favorite foods of the family and my homemade cheesecake. One more of our newer traditions is our yearly pilgrimage to the Kotel for slichot the night before Yom Kippur.
Growing up as an Ashkenazi Conservative active Jew I always went to slichot the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana out of a feeling of obligation. In order for people to come I remember my shul having some sort of activity or speaker and food before slichot. I went but never really felt like I identified with it, never really understood it and truthfully thought it was boring.
After meeting my husband who is a Sephardi Indian I heard stories from him about his family waking up in the middle of the night in order to go to slichot every day for the month of Elul. A month, really? Really. He knows all the melodies and prayers from his own memories of going to his Indian synagogue in Lod even though, he has given up this early morning monthly ritual.
Once I had children, I had the perfect excuse to stay home and miss the midnight service. I used that excuse for a good many years. Slichot, started to change for me when my daughters attended and I taught at the Yachad School in Modi’in. Yachad is an experimental school where religious and non-religious kids study together. Each morning the students pray together in their classes. Till Yom Kippur a few additional prayers are added, Adon HaSlichot being one of them. The amazing thing that I remember from my time at Yachad was even the kids who never wanted to open the prayer book or pray at all, sang Adon Haslichot. It was easy, catchy and all the kids sang. The halls of Yachad would be filled with sound of slichot.
When my daughter was in the sixth grade the entire grade went on an evening slichot tour of the Old City and I volunteered to go with them. I was so taken by this experience, all the different groups and kinds of people on tours throughout the city and of course by all the stories we heard. Unfortunately, we didn’t actually stay till 12:30 a.m. when the big service takes place but the experience was unforgettable.
A few years later and with 2 additional children old enough to join we decided to go as a family on the last night before Yom Kippur for a traditional Sephardic slichot at the Kotel. We went on the early side as we wanted everyone to stay awake, wanted to find parking and a space to stand.
As we walked to the Old City, I couldn’t believe the amount of people. Walking through the outer alley ways we were with so many people from so many walks of life. It was exhilarating and felt a bit crazy. There was a group of teenage boys in front of us that were chanting songs that sounded as if they were on their way to a football game instead the Kotel. Of course, we expected to see many dressed in religious clothing and plenty of different kinds of head coverings for both men and women. But what was more surprising were the many women in clothing perhaps not quite appropriate for religious sites and many showing tattoos. Our expectations of the ‘type’ of person you may expect at slichot suddenly changed. Inn addition, we saw men who wore white cardboard kippot that came from the Kotel. At the Kotel plaza there were signs for men and women sections and requests were made for women and men to separate but in the end it was just a mass of people standing together. There were many families, tourists who wanted the experience, yeshiva boys on the balconies of the yeshivot in the area, boyfriends and girlfriends, and groups of friends. When the slichot service began it was amazing to see how many people knew the words without the siddur in front of them. It was such an incredible, exciting and spiritual event to be a part of. It was a real scene
Last year by the time we were finished we were like a stream of water being pushed along. We weren’t really walking out of the Old City but being moved by the crowd. Yes, a bit frightening. Walking back to our car it was as if it was the middle of the day in Jerusalem. Restaurants in Mamilia were open at 2 a.m. with lines out the door, streets were jammed with people, cars and buses were filling up the roads. We arrived home at 3:30 a.m. excited and spiritually uplifted for the next day’s prayers.
Each year we have been since the first the scene basically repeats itself and I find myself people watching and am mesmerized. Each time we go we believe it is more crowded than the year before. It has become an event, a family tradition.
This year the pandemic of Covid -19 or Coronavirus changes many traditions for our family and Jews all over. We will be a part of slichot at the Kotel via computer streaming but the experience will certainly be different. This year we know that we want and need our prayers to be heard nice and loud for all Am Yisrael and for people all around the beautiful world Hashem has bestowed upon us. May we all be inscribed in the book of life and next year be able to return to our traditions of the past.