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Yom Kippur, Tel Aviv style

Even in Israel's secular capital, everything stops on the holiest day of the year -- because we want it to
People ride their bicycles on the car-free Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
People ride their bicycles on the car-free Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Friday night, Tel Aviv will resemble a post apocalypse movie: the oil ran out and all we have left are bicycles and roller blades.

Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – begins this Friday evening. Many people know Jews don’t eat or drink for 25 hours (sundown to sundown) but few know what actually happens on Yom Kippur in modern, non-religious, Israel.

When I arrived, just over four years ago, Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv took me by complete surprise.

Practically all cars and motor transport will stop. Just not go anywhere. Almost no planes, trains or automobiles will move until Saturday night.

People simply don’t drive their cars. The air smells good, the visibility gets better and the distant roar of traffic on the Ayalon highway is glaringly absent. There is even brand new scientific evidence that the air is much cleaner on Yom Kippur.

From sundown to sundown the streets are full of people strolling or cycling; on suburban streets or along 10 lane highways, the only thing you have to watch out for are kids on speeding bicycles. Non observant people figure out how, for just one day a year, not to drive except for dire emergencies.

I will allow my 4 year old child to pedal furiously down a 6 lane divided highway in whichever direction he prefers.

As far as I can tell (people are vague on this) there is no firm, enforceable law against driving on Yom Kippur. It just isn’t done.

In theory, I think, the police could stop you, but they’d just ask why you were driving, tell you to be careful and let you go. It’s Israel: there is no religious police to enforce this kind of thing as it isn’t a religious state.

Motor traffic does stop every Sabbath in places where observant, religious Jews live in large majority: parts of Jerusalem, highly religious towns like Tzfat (Safed, Zefad, however you spell it) and many others. Even Bnei Brak, which is part of metropolitan Tel Aviv, largely stops every Friday to Saturday.

But on a regular Sabbath in Tel Aviv Friday night traffic is bumper to bumper and the restaurants serving pork or shell fish are full to bursting. Some of them seem to combine pork, prawns and dairy products in one dish to break as many of the Kosher rules as possible in one go.

On Yom Kippur, however, everything really stops. There is no commerce. Non-observant Jews and observant Jews alike, hide the car keys. For sure, if your kid falls off his bike or your wife goes into labor, most (from all communities) would call an ambulance or drive to hospital.

On Yom Kippur non-religious Jews simply organize their lives such that they don’t need to drive.

Many of them might not fast, and they probably stock up on downloaded movies or DVD’s because the main Israeli TV channels shut down (but there are plenty of other channels on satellite and cable that do work).

I left my apartment to have a look last year: I saw one pickup truck and 3 police cars moving. Slowly. Through the crowds of children riding bikes, even on roads that resemble LA’s 405 freeway or 5th Avenue in New York.

In fact it is hugely dangerous and irresponsible to drive on Yom Kippur. The roads are just full of kids: anyone, Christian, Arab or Jew who drives for anything but a life-threatening emergency would be rightly condemned.

So why is being Jewish so different when you’re in Israel? There has never, in my recollection, been a Jew outside of Israel who’s publicly got upset by anyone eating, even in front of him, on Yom Kippur.

Jews have never, and will never, ask you to stop driving for a day in your country. It just won’t happen. Even in our own country this isn’t a law, it’s just something the vast majority of Jews want to do because, over here, in Jewish Israel, it feels right.

That is the difference between living as a Jew outside Israel and as a Jew in Israel: here we can just BE Jewish and the calendar and the customs and the norms of behavior push us into being culturally Jewish even if we don’t want to study Torah for nine hours a day.

Jews don’t want anywhere else to be a little piece of Israel, we just want this one small place in the world to be ours and to feel Jewish.

Gmar Chatima Tova to you all, and be careful on your bikes.

Yom Kippur evening suburban street
Yom Kippur evening on a suburban street in a non-religious neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Photo: Brian of London

There are many videos on YouTube of people on the streets on Yom Kippur, here is just one I found with a search.

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About the Author
Brian of London made aliyah from the UK to Israel in 2009. For many years he has blogged and broadcast about Israel, technology and other subjects. Most recently he's focused on the experience of driving an electric car every day. Brian has a scientific PhD but today owns a business in Israel.