When synagogues are forced to close, it typically comes at the hands of a governmental or religious majority’s desire to suppress and alienate the Jewish people.
In a world where the State of Israel is a reality, no one could have ever imagined that the Jewish state itself would purposefully order synagogues to shut their doors, let alone on Erev Rosh Hashanah. As I watch the sunset from my apartment window on the final Shabbat during Israel’s second lockdown, I can’t help but connect the feeling with the end of seger to the end of the High Holiday season, despite the fact that Simchat Torah already came and went a week ago.
For the first time in history since 1967, in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the vast majority of Israel’s Jews could not visit the Western Wall as part of their religious observances for any of the High Holidays, from Slichot to Kol Nidre to Sukkot to lirkod. Just last year, in a pre-COVID-19 world, I observed Yom Kippur in Jerusalem and had the “Yom Kippur in Israel” experience for the first time. Starting with standing in the women’s section two stories high at the Great Synagogue on King George Street for Kol Nidre service, to realizing that I couldn’t hail a taxi afterwards due to the annual roadblocks, to waking up early the next morning to walk to the Old City, to hearing a chorus of shofars accompanied by the national anthem at the Western Wall, to concluding the day by ravenously breaking the fast with hummus and falafel balls, my first Yom Kippur in Israel was eventful to say the least.
Once Yom Kippur rolled around this year, in a COVID-19 world, I observed it in a relatively still Tel Aviv, with squealing children on their bikes and razor scooters serving as the only sound that pierced the otherwise calm atmosphere. Nevertheless, the shuttered businesses and empty roads did not shock me at all; it honestly felt like just another day in our endless cycle of lockdowns. Since last Yom Kippur, I have seen Jerusalem completely shut down for almost two months, so I couldn’t sense the importance nor the significance of the “Yom Kippur in Israel” experience that I had had just one year before. I wondered if I would return to Israel for Yom Kippur someday in the future, when COVID-19 did not impact our daily lives quite so much, if I would associate the observance of a country-wide shut down with the holiest day of the Jewish year or with the lockdown of March 2020.
As I walked on the streets of Tel Aviv, yes I mean that literally I could feel the hot asphalt searing through my flip flops and I did not understand how people could bear to lay their backs on the pavement and look up at the sky as if they were in the Notebook, eventually I passed through an eerily empty Dizengoff Center and neared Dizengoff square. It was as if it had been purposefully divided. On the east side of the fountain, the tallit-adorned men matched their female counterparts: davening with their heads covered, siddur in hand, and shoeless feet pointed towards Jerusalem.
On the west side, children zoomed around on the road as the adults sat on their phones. One young girl on her miniature pink bike cautiously rolled down the sidewalk onto the pavement, but immediately turned to her mother and stated, “lama ani yechola linsoa b’kvish?” Why can I ride on the road? Her mother replied, “ki ze yom meyuchad. Anachnu yecholim linsoa b’kvish.” Because today is a special day. We can ride on the road. For the religious Jews on the eastern half of the square, they would surely agree with the mother of the young girl that it was indeed a special day, but not immediately afterward equate it with the ability to ride her tricycle on the street.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether a young Haredi child had asked a similar question to the older members of the community in relation to why they were wearing socks, Crocs, or flip flops. I’m sure the answer would have been almost exactly the same: Because today is a special day. On this “special day” in 2020, however, the beaches and the synagogues remained closed, as the government required throughout the last month of summer in Israel and the High Holidays. On my walk back to my apartment, as I passed by a group of Tel Aviv’s pious, truly a rare sight, crowding the sidewalk across from a tiny Kerem neighborhood synagogue, painstakingly straining for just the chance to hear the shofar from inside, a twenty-something-year-old man yelled in English from his window a few stories above us, “we live in crazy times!”
With the semester just beginning and the resumption of education on Zoom, students continue to live in these “crazy times” and they enter the school year with such uncertainty as to how the semester will end, of course the classic question of whether it will be in-person or online looms over the education system’s administration, but even more so of how the world will look once the final exams of the first semester come around in January and February. Will Israel be entering a third lockdown? Will the world’s efforts to produce a reliable vaccine prove viable? Will Benjamin Netanyahu remain in his position as Prime Minister? Will other Middle Eastern or North African countries follow in the path of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in the Abraham Accords and sign peace agreements with Israel?
As a reaction to these questions and uncertainties, protests (or rather “hafganot” as you will commonly hear Israelis refer to them in Hebrew) have served as one of the few consistencies Israel has seen throughout the “year of the pandemic”. Once I moved to Tel Aviv, I realized that if someone tells you that they are going to a hafganah, the question isn’t “where?”; it’s “which one?” From protesting against Netanyahu to demanding justice for a 16-year-old girl who was brutally raped by eleven men in Eilat, the people of Israel want answers from their governmental representatives and a greater sense of influence on their country affairs, especially with the turmoil the Israeli populace has borne at the hands of its government since long before the outbreak of COVID-19.
As the sun sets on the final night of lockdown, police vehicles and motorcycles patrol down Retsif Herbert Samuel, rhythmically reminding the beach goers that seger stands until the sun rises with a familiar phrase we have all heard in Israel since the onset of the pandemic. Shnei metrim ahad m’sheni bevakasha. Two meters in between each other please.