TEL AVIV, Israel — Yom Kippur is the most important holiday for Jewish people. Well, not the Jewish people, the people of Jewish religion. After all, most Jews prefer not to fast, prefer not to spend a dozen hours in a synagogue which they had to pay a ton of money to attend, prefer not to read 200+ pages in Hebrew and listen to a rabbi sing song after song. The secular people don’t go about saying “sorry,” aside from maybe a post on Facebook stating “sorry to anyone I may have wronged” which has yet to actually get a response from anyone saying “Thanks! That time you were a jerk is totally forgiven.” So there’s no true asking and no giving either.
In Israel this holiday is not the most festive, like Purim or Yom Hatzmaut. It is not filled with food and family, like Rosh Hoshanah or Pesach, But it is important. It is important because it is celebrated in a way that it cannot be celebrated by Jewish people anywhere else. It is celebrated the way that only Jews as a majority can celebrate it: together as a country.
Jews in United States, will not stop all traffic if they stop driving. In Israel, when Jews stop driving, all traffic ceases. Only a rare ambulance or a lonely police car, or a solitary spiteful Arab driver comes through the empty road once in a while. This leaves all roads empty, free for the taking. Israeli families, students and really everyone who has not left the country for vacation, takes to the streets by foot, bike or scooter. The whole country, every city and every street becomes a park. They begin walking around at sundown and do not stop until the next sundown. There are picnics, there are gangs of 10 year olds on bikes, there are gangs of girls on skates, there are toddlers in the middle of the street, there are skateboarders pulled by bikers, there are old men and young men, women and children, sitting on streets and corners and talking, enjoying each other’s company. They have no food, they have no drinks, there is no trash. It is just pure joy to be outside without having to go anywhere and without having to watch out for cars.
In Russia, all commerce wouldn’t end if all Jews in Russia closed their shops. But in Israel, when all Jews close their shops, all business stops. The streets are quiet, the metal grates are down, the mannequins stand quiet behind closed glass doors with no light to illuminate them. The shwarma stands do not rotate greasy shwarma, the lottery ticket sellers are not selling the dream today, the bars have no chairs or tables outside, there is no music blaring and no smoke wafting from the ashtrays, the shopping malls sit quiet and idle like sleeping whales. All commerce ceased, there’s nothing to buy, because there’s no one to sell, because all who sell, are also enjoying Yom Kippur at home or in the streets. All public transport is closed, no way for anyone to come and go to work. With cars, stores and buses, out, there is but the sporadic sound of children and the ever present hum of air conditioners, which drip on the sidewalks like a summer rain.
Another thing that cannot happen in another country is the synagogues. They are open, they are informal and they charge no fee. This is because only in a Jewish country where the government gives synagogues money, do they not have to worry about tickets and fees. Rabbis grab people off the street, people wearing crocs and sneakers are in the synagogues, some have traditional white garb in which you see them walking around the city on their way to and from the synagogue, but some wear t-shirts and shorts without judgment or shame. You came to pray and all are happy for that. Some don’t even go into the synagogue, they are not religious enough to do that, but they will stand outside of it, listening to the prayers of the men inside. They stand embracing, with dogs and kids beside them, enjoying another Yom Kippur, the way they always have, because as long as they, the Israelis, have lived, this is how it was, this is how it is. Except for me, because I lived in Soviet Union where there was no Yom Kippur, because I lived in US where Sandy Kofax is a Jewish hero for skipping a World Series baseball game on Yom Kippur, because there, getting a day off from school and work means going through bureaucratic hoops. I lived where cars were driving, where people were shopping, where everyone was eating and drinking, and tickets to the synagogue must have been bought in advance and for a lot more than a young student could afford.
So as I hear the shofar, signaling an end to fast, the waking of the cars, the music in the bars, I think to myself: so what’s so different about Yom Kippur in Israel? Everything.