Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Yom Kippur in Israel

Having just returned from a three-week visit to Israel, I have many thoughts about our amazing state, her people and their ideologies. On my journey I interviewed people from the left and right, religious and secular. On the spiritual journey, I went to Sephardi and Ashkenzi shuls in Ramat Gan, Shira Hadasha and Kedem in Jerusalem, and finally Moshav Meor Modiin that was by far the most enthusiastic and genuine davening I have ever experienced.

What struck me most on the visit was the way secular Israelis celebrate Yom Kippur. Not a Fish writes:
Imagine, if you will, the busiest, noisiest, most congested street you know; always jammed with cars, buses, trucks whizzing past, horns peeping, hundreds of people filling the sidewalks, rushing this way and that.

And now try to mentally visualize that same street, completely empty, eerily silent. No vehicles moving on it, not even one, sidewalks empty of passersby, besides maybe the occasional family, walking slowly and reverently towards their synagogue.

And then you hear it, a low clicking, whirling sound. Soon there is a sight to go with the sound, a solitary guy on a bike, riding boldly, right in the middle of the wrong side of the road. He’s soon followed by a group of kids in their early teens, about six of them, racing their bikes, shouting out to each other. Next to go passed - a couple on roller blades, holding hands; and then more bikers, mainly children of various ages, many in packs, but quite a few serious adult bikers too, with all the fancy gear.

This is Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, the best place to be in the world if you are a secular kid and you possess a bicycle. There is nowhere you can’t go, complete and utter freedom, unheard of, unthinkable. The next day the gangs of kids tell stories of how they reached as far as Herzliya and Rishpon in the north. An all time favourite is the Ayalon Freeway, which cuts through the east of Tel Aviv all along. For secular Tel Aviv kids, used to the restrictions of living in the middle of a busy city with all its dangers, Yom Kippur is a day of breaking free, a day of personal independence.

Spending the Chag in Ramat Gan, I was amazed by the 100’s of kids on bikes I saw that day. Another thing that amazed me was that 1000’s of people also went to shule. However, shule in Ramat Gan is very different from Melbourne. The shuls I visited were filled with mostly once a year Jews(nothing unexpected here), but the interesting part of the story, is what went on outside the shule.

For every person in the shule, there was a person and a half in the street. They all bring chairs, gather round, talk, catch up on gossip, and enjoy the balmy autumn weather.

Is this a sign for hope or despair?

Despair: There is a baal shem tov story that retells how the Rabbi used to have a special place, where he lit a special fire, and say a special prayer when the Jewish people were in trouble. Later generations would forget the place, forget how to light the fire, and forget the prayer, and so, the story would suffice.

So too, the secular Israelis of Ramat Gan, have forgotten the prayers(no one had siddurim), forgotten the meaning of the chag(few could tell me any more about Yom kippur other than it being a day “when God forgiveness us”) and forgotten the rituals. What did they remember was that their grandparents went to shule on Yom Kippur, so they to must also go to shule, but only to sit outside, for the interior is a foreign land.

Hope: Perhaps the Israelis are reinventing the chag. No one does anything on the chag. Have you ever wondered what the world would like if everyone kept shabbes? This is what YK feels like in Israel. There are no cars, No TV shows(although the DVD shops do a roaring trade the day before the chag) no radio programs, no busses and trains, and even the intl airport shuts for the day. People talk to one another, the cell phones are off, and in the streets one feels a party atmosphere, similar to Chanuka in the Park or In One Voice.

I’m not sure what to make of the secular Yom Kippur. Experiencing the chag out of the beit knesset is an experience in itself. I wonder how the next generation will remember the chag?

Read also: Spending YK on a bicycle seems like a terrible waste

Is the secular Yom kippur a viable alternative? What does it say about the way we experience our religion in a Jewish homeland?


AndrewH said...

Yom Kippur has changed its meaning for me, at least, entirely. Last year I had the most wonderful time wandering around Budapest, shule-hopping, with a guy from Sydney we'd only just met in the Israeli shule across from where we were staying. I fasted so well, I thought that it must have been that I wasn't in Melbourne, at St Kilda Shul, in the Overflow.

But, lo and behold, this year I spent the entire day at St. Kilda, and found myself similarly engaged and enthralled and excited by the whole thing. I had a trouble concentrating on what I was actually praying for and about, but I couldn't wipe the smile off my face.

It's just a sort of unique and special thing, Yom Kippur. It's harrowing and joyful at the same time. It's intensely introspective, but it also forces you to think about which book everyone else is being inscribed in.

You think about the past, present and future all at once, and then you go back to reality as soon as you've caught sight of a havdalah candle. More or less, anyway.

ifyouwillit said...

The bicycle thing shocked me. It was the first YK since my aliya and the first time I had been in Israel for the chag.

Some would argue that children on bikes is an embressment and what has the state become, but every coin has two sides. I don't want the "true" YK to be lost, but the evolution of Judaism in the Modern Jewish State is still young. Religion plus modernity can lead to interesting results.

Pre 1900's, would you have found a Shira Chadasha style community that would have been accepted as an orthodox community?

I don't think the adaption of religion is a bad thing, but we need to be careful not to cross the line and loose touch with what it is really about.

Moadim L'Simcha!

ifyouwillit said...

Please excuse the unrealted comment, but one of my friends, and a guest at my Shabbat table today is a friend of you and or your wife.

Assuming you're the same person, I made the connection when she mentioned her friend Ittay that had just been over from Australia. She's called Rachel, from Sydney.

It's a small world! Shavua Tov.

Ittay said...

wow. it really is a small world. I was at ulpan etzion visiting rachel just after rosh hashana. do you learn at the ulpan with her?

Michael Lawrence said...

What do secular Jewish kids do on YK outside Israel? I imagine many of them do not even realize it's YK? At the least in Israel, people around them (everywhere!) are not riding bikes and driving but are rather fasting, in shule or doing their own contemplation.
Isn't that the beauty of Israel in fact?

Ittay said...

I agree michael. The secular YK of Isreal is much more valid than the secular YK of Diaspora. The question is, can the secular isreali YK sustain Jewish identity as well as religious diaspora YK?

ifyouwillit said...

I was in the session before Rachel. As I only moved to the end of the street, the Ulpan staff asked me to give an orientation of the neighbourhood to the English speakers when they arrived, so I know a few of this machzor.

It's always a pleasure to host other people for shabbat meals, and Rachel has been more than once.

I keep meeting people in Israel that were madrichim of mine, know friends of mine, married madrichot that I knew... The world's a small place, and everyone seems to meet in Jerusalem!

BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

I think the meaning of Yom Kippur has changed through the ages, at least in the way it is practiced. This does necessarily result in a false division between secular v. religious, as I think the meaning of being a Jew has changed for so many.

The more interesting question is whether we keep the Jews we have, who are willing to commit to being Jewish, raise their children as such, practice the holidays, or assimulate because of feelings of frustration over strict rules and regulations? There is no easy answer, so as usual, I pose it as a question.

naava said...

here's a joke:

david goes to his rabbi and says rabbi i feel bad. i didn't wash before i ate bread the other day.

the rabbi says, don't worry about it too much. it's not such a terribel sin. just make sure you wash next time.

but rabbi, david says. I ate the bread at a non-kosher restaurant.

why did you do that? asked the rabbi.
well, all the kosher restaurants were closed rabbi. it was yom kippur.

galit said...

g'day y'all, i am in north carolina now. ittay shame i missed you the other day but was good to talk with carm. just a note about yom kippur in rome this year... there was a similar situation to tel aviv where many more people were hanging around outside shmoozing. what really struck me was how many italian women showed up in jeans, leather jackets and boots. just a cultural observation about how completely unacceptable that would be in our home town.

another observation about the jewish communities i've visited this year - amsterdam and india were overwhelmingly welcoming and hospitable while parts of italy namely florence and rome were not at all. just my personal experience.. perhaps other people have had other experiences. i actually found it difficult to be in a shul and have a genuine experience where the community weren't friendly. also didn't help that they seemed to have a completely different nusach that i couldn't follow so perhaps can't blame them completely.

went to the upper westside in manhattan for simchat torah which is where all the happening shuls are, including the carlebach shul and darchei noam (along the lines of shira chadasha). lots of interesting things happening in the jewish world around the world!

Ittay said...

G’day Galit,
Great to hear from you on your travels. I thought you point about how “many italian women showed up in jeans, leather jackets and boots” to Yom Kippur was interesting and says a lot for the notion of tsniut and kvod Hatzibur being relative to the social norms of the area. I guess God can hear our prayers no matter what we are wearing. Then again, perhaps we can’t hear our own prayers if we are too concerned about our boobs falling out of their tubes and wedgies.