The tribal yet unsustainable nature of a secular Israeli Yom Kippur

I question most lifestyles I see but the secular Israeli lifestyle is an enigma to me and I don’t really see how it is sustainable. This is most stark on Yom Kippur.

Today a very secular person wished me a gmar chatima tova (the traditional blessing on the eve of Yom Kippur) and an easy fast. Yes, I assume that if he wished me an easy fast, he probably fasts himself.


Later I also was privy to a conversation between three 16-17 year old secular kids. One girl said the last time she fasted – around two years ago – it was because she was with a friend who fasts.

The boy, when parting, amusingly said to the two girls, “Gmar chatima tova and whatever other nonsense we say today.” Then the second girl said, “And an easy fast.” The boy said, “Oh, you fast?” And she nodded. He wished her an easy fast.

As I extrapolate from these little experiences to understand that world a little more, it seems quite unsustainable to do something just because, if you’re simultaneously feeling negatively towards Jewish tradition in general. You can’t really fast on Yom Kippur while raising your children with a disconnected to skeptical attitude towards Judaism, and then think they’re going to feel a strong connection to Yom Kippur. Most kids will be too smart not to notice that Yom Kippur is only one out of a few hundred traditions and if 610 of them are passe, probably Yom Kippur is as well.

This makes me sad but I can also relate. I feel a connection to the Jewish tradition and lifestyle but I can relate to being extremely skeptical about the whole thing. When the teenage guy said, “or whatever other nonsense we say today,” I felt like I understood his sentiment. I could see he felt self conscious saying something so religious, reciting something from his ancestors’ traditions which is oh so old and really quite superstitious too, come to think of it.

I mean, are we really expected to believe the Big One in the sky is filling out a book of life and death?

And once you face Yom Kippur in this modern light, might you be quite relieved to rid yourself of this day’s heaviness?

In a conversation with my physiotherapist today he said that all the stuff we say in synagogue about who shall live and who shall die is actually referring to the world to come. When I said I suppose there are different opinions on this he said: “It’s not as though when we say in synagogue, ‘Who will live and who will die,’ someone drops dead.”

Yup, that’s the conversation I had with my seemingly secular physiotherapist. Because the city is a-buzz with the Yom Kippur vibe. A lot of conversations today end up connecting somehow to Yom Kippur.

At this point in time Yom Kippur is the most connectable day in the Jewish calendar. Almost all of us allow ourselves to be affected by it in a pretty major way and this makes us feel our connection with each other. It reminds us we’re one tribe, connected by our ancient roots and these individual traditions we almost all still choose to allow/invite into our lives.

(The other one is the seder night, by the way.)

But I am scared of the future. I don’t think it’s ever been good for Jews to distance themselves too much from tradition, to feel like Judaism is too old fashioned for their modern lives. But how can we connect to something so ancient? That’s a very big question. And maybe as big as that question is another one: Would secular Israelis want to figure out how to have a more meaningful and sustainable connection with their roots?

And yet meanwhile, Yom Kippur is the one day a year in Israel when we all stop and act like one tribe. I don’t know how things will look in 10 years but for now, Yom Kippur remains my favourite day of the year in Israel.

Gmar chatima tova, she said bashfully.

About the Author
Deena writes about life, relationships and her beloved Jerusalem. She organizes "Jerusalem Encounters" and shares hand-picked cultural events in her online calendar, Things to do in Jerusalem.