Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv is magic.
The streets, free of cars (by tradition, only ambulances and police cars turn over their engines on the day), fill with kids on bikes and scooters, dogs running this way and that, rollerbladers, strolling couples, klatches of chatting friends, picnics-on-asphalt, people on their way to and from synagogue, young artists making chalk murals, teens on their backs counting stars. On my walk back from Kol Nidre prayers, I passed, in what on every other day is a busy intersection, a circle of people in folding chairs, maybe a hundred all the way around, singing youth-movement songs. The Ministry of Environmental Protection reports that air pollution goes down by more than three-quarters on Yom Kippur, and the city is mostly quiet, save for the laughs and yelps delighted children.
This year, though, there was something else, too. When the pandemic shuttered synagogues three years ago, many congregations pulled together High Holiday prayers outside, in parks and city squares. There was something moving about these services, partly because they were a chance to be with people at a time when most of us were holed up in our apartments, partly because they somehow absorbed some of the magic of the kids on bikes and all the rest around them (laughs and yelps, it turns out, make prayers somehow more powerful), and partly because, as Hasidim have known for centuries, it is possible to feel closer to heaven when you’re, well, closer to the heavens.
What’s more, most every service in the park attracted people who, though they would never set foot in a synagogue, did show up to stand in the back of prayers in a park or city square to take in what was going on. For all these reasons, when COVID retreated, some congregations kept their High Holiday prayers outside. The Orthodox congregations among them, which is most all of them, prayed outside like they did inside, with a separate mens’ and womens’ section. And nobody thought much of it.
Until this year. This year, after nine months of protests over judicial reform and, also, over the greatly increased influence this government’s religious parties have over the country’s social policy (religious men control the ministries of labor, social affairs, social services, health, interior, housing, construction, communications, finance, immigration, national security, religious affairs, heritage, Jewish tradition and more; religious women control the ministries of environment and “national missions”), people have grown suspicious of religious sorts.
They worry that, with the iron-tough majority this mostly religious, entirely right-wing government has, it will chip away at the already-far-from-perfect rights that LGBTQ folks have slowly won over the past forty years, and that the still-far-from-perfect standing of women will slip back to being as dismal as it was in the not-so-long-ago past. Maybe the most arresting part of the protests have been the “Handmaids Tale” marches, where women dressed in red frocks and white bonnets walked in long solemn rows, heads bowed, to protest this government’s disregard for women (which disregard is symbolically expressed in the fact that one of every six ministers is a woman).
What’s more, it is an election year, so Tel Aviv-Jaffa mayor Ron Huldai (who is being challenged for his job by a woman, Orna Barbivai, who is an IDF general just like he is, and almost twenty years younger) issued a ban on any outdoor services that have a mehitza, a traditional barrier that divides men at prayer from women.
Last week, the group that organizes the prayers each year at Dizengoff Square, maybe the city site that most synecdochically represents Tel Aviv, a group named Rosh Yehudi that earned a reputation of missionary intent tinged with homophobia, took the mayor to court to reverse the ban. But the district court judge upheld the ban on the grounds that cities ought to be able to decide such things, plus that banning a barrier is not the same as banning prayer.
When the verdict came in, the Rosh Yehudi people said they would hold prayers anyway – their loophole plan was to create a mehitza out of Israeli flags — and that is how it came to pass that Yom Kippur started and ended with screaming fights between the hundred odd people who came to pray and the hundred odd people who came to keep them from praying.
One of this last hundred was Shlomit Kovner, a sixty-six year old woman with short cropped white hair with a pink swoosh for bangs, who came because she was outraged by the loophole, which she said was like a finger poking her in the eye.
Shulamit Kovner is the daughter of Abba Kovner, a poet who, as not much more than a kid, led the underground in the Vilna Ghetto. As a young man after the war, he formed a secret organization called Nakam, revenge, that plotted to poison the drinking water reservoirs of Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich and Nurembeg. In 1946, Nakam coated loaves of bread at the Langwasser Internment camp near Nuremberg with arsenic, causing 2,200 German prisoners to wretch, double over in pain, and sweat through their sheets.
Traces of the father’s fighting spirit could be found in the daughter’s resolve to keep the prayers in Dizengoff Square from taking place, and she prevailed. Something similar happened in parks and squares around the city where prayer sessions were planned.
For Ne’ila, the hauntingly beautiful prayer that ends the Day of Atonement, beseeching as the gates of heaven close, I was in Habima Square, the large stone expanse outside the national theater, a thousand meters from Dizengoff Square. There, Tzohar, a modern-Orthodox group that calls itself, with good reason, “a socially conscious movement [that aims to] secure an ethical, inclusive and united Jewish society” organized a service mostly for a group of dozens of new immigrants from England and the US, though it was open to everyone.
The people who came to pray were young and enthusiastic. The people who came to break up the prayer were older. One who insisted on standing in the women’s section wore a shirt that read, “Fighters from the 1973 Yom Kippur War are Fighting Now for the Future of the State.” When the rabbi prayed or sang, the protestors screamed.
The Tzohar service had no mehitza, just chairs set up in two sections, a walkway between them. The group had ignored no rules and broken no laws, but still the protestors protested, the police came, and eventually the people praying took their books and left the square to pray in a nearby parking lot.
I was there for a service slapdashed together by the Masorti, or Conservative, Movement, the idea of Rakefet Ginsberg, the remarkable woman who heads the operation. A couple of days before Yom Kippur some posts were posted to Facebook, and I lugged 25 Yom Kippur prayer books and another 50 or so photocopies of the Ne’ila prayer to the square. We figured that maybe a dozen people would show, and hoped maybe a dozen more would take a shine to us, and join us. The point was, I guess, just to show that some Jews pray without a mehitza, that that’s possible, too: no divisions between women and men, straight and queer, observant and non-, young and old, each with the same status and roles to play in the community as everyone else.
The rabbi who came to lead the service was Leor Sinai, a well-known figure around the city, charismatic, with a quick smile, a spiritual mien, and a deep resonant voice that, it is possible to imagine, is maybe not all that different from God’s voice at the mountain after which Leor Sinai is named. The service started with just a handful of congregants but, to my surprise, it was magnetic. In minutes, all 75 texts were handed out. One hundred people became two hundred, then three hundred. There were women with dogs, kids leaning on their bikes, gay couples, old folks.
A protester came by, screaming that he was going to break up the gathering. He said, I live nearby, and I don’t need to hear people praying through my window. He said, Herzl said, “We will keep the rabbis in their synagogues” and here you are in public. Leor kept praying, and a big man wearing a protest-demonstration T-shirt reading “Free in Our Own Land” talked to the protestor in quiet even tones, explaining that this service was different, not one to bust up. It took five minutes, but eventually the man stopped yelling. Then he looked on at Leor as he sang words of atonement. Then he left.
At the end, Leor called for kids to step forward from the circle of people that had formed around him, took off his prayer shawl, which six people held high over the heads of the children, as Leor blew the shofar, ending the day.
After everything was over, people milled about for a long time, all of us, I think, astonished by what we had just seen and by what we had just done. Dozens of people came to shake my hand – many more still shook Leor’s – and to say how sad they had been over the violence and tension over religion over the past days; they were relieved and moved to see things could be different.
The great rabbi-theologian-philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote of marching arms linked with Martin Luther King in Selma that “I felt my legs were praying.” Perhaps dazed with hunger, it came to me that what happened at Habima Square was maybe an opposite miracle. Our prayers had taken leg, bringing some sort of salve to all the other city squares where violence and tension were all there was.
By now, the first cars were back in the streets, honking and spewing.