Feeling the Yom Kippur Spirit in Tel Aviv
By Allison Gay
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year for us Jews. However, it is not a happy holiday, it is actually a very solemn day where we ask god for forgiveness from all of the wrongs we have done throughout the year. We also forgive others who have done wrongs to us.
Some call it the Day of Atonement, and people spend all day doing intensive praying in synagogue, or reading and watching movies at home, or doing anything to take their minds off of food because they fast all day (as a symbol of cleansing from the past year’s sins).
I, on the other hand, pulled the ‘typical American girl in Israel’… I figured since G-d is just so happy that I am here in His Holy Land already, that I don’t have to fast, or go to temple, or do anything for that matter. So, my new best friend, Sharon, and I ate a lot, and went to the beach, and hung out with friends, and had one of the most unique and incredible experiences I’ve had so far. But most people in Tel Aviv don’t keep the holiday either, (where in other cities like Jerusalem, and even in Jewish communities in The States, everyone fasts and goes to temple) which is what makes Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv nothing less than magical-
The whole city shuts down completely but people still live normally. It is a beautiful mix of modern city culture and ancient religious tradition. Let me explain…
Imagine yourself in the middle of a huge city (let’s say Times Square in New York City) on a hot summer day. It’s 4:00 in the afternoon and people are everywhere- you are among thousands of other people walking the streets. People are rushing in and out of stores, stepping on your toes, brushing your sides with their bags, stocking up on groceries, frantically getting last minute things before everything shuts down.
Around 5:00, people begin to disperse. You are still walking on the sidewalk though, but no one is surrounding you anymore. Cars are still driving on the streets, but the grocery stores are now closed, and all of the storekeepers are locking their doors, and like the domino affect, shops turn their lights off one by one.
By 5:30, there are no more cars on the streets. You step off of the sidewalk and stand in the middle of a usually busy intersection and watch all of the advertisements that cover the city’s big buildings turn off. Now, nothing is flashing, nothing is moving, the only thing giving light to the city are the still street lights.
It was right after Tel Aviv shut off the last of it’s lights when I began to feel the affect of the first night of Yom Kippur. Around 6:00, I took a ten minute walk by myself to my friend Sharon’s apartment around the corner. As I was walking, I noticed that the dirty busy city that I live in is now absolutely serene. The almost setting sun gave off a rosey glow that provided a calming affect to everything. The white buildings were now a soft pink, and the people on the streets were wearing flowing white garments, that swayed gently in the breeze. The more religious families were walking together, holding prayer books on their way to temple. The less religious families were riding bikes and quietly talking on their phones, meeting up with neighbors and friends, wishing each other a happy new year and an easy fast. It was such a special experience to walk in the middle of the streets with everyone.
I went to bed late that night feeling at ease. The whole city was silent, everyone and everything was asleep, resting, rejuvenating, and cleansing itself from all of the negativity of the past year. I woke that morning, the official day of fasting and praying, and instead of getting ready for temple, Sharon and I cooked shakshuka together (a typical Israeli breakfast made up of tomatoes and eggs…so delicious) and then we went to the beach …
I am not going to lie, at first I felt a little guilty for not fasting or praying, and spending the day rather extravagantly compared to my fellow religious Jews, but this is Israeli culture in Tel Aviv- No one really cares. But- at the same time, even at the beach, there is this unspoken, holy connection wafting around the air. Like everyone understands each other on this day and there is a greater sense of connection that is hard to put into words, that you cannot experience any where else.
It is fun to think about the US doing something like this. If everyone had a day to just reflect on the past year. To not think about materialistic urges, to forget about everything but the people who are important in your life, and as corny as it sounds, to literally just ‘be’- especially in a city that is usually so alive and crazy… To have a day to meditate on things really puts life in perspective.
Even though I did not spend the holiday in a religious way, being in Israel and feeling this intense sense of community made me realize that you don’t always need to fast or pray or obey the ancient religious laws in order to experience something holy.
Maybe, if you can more or less just take one day a year to reflect and forgive yourself (and others) from past wrongs, and allow yourself to move on in life with a clean palate, then that counts as enough. So, with all of my Jewish guilt aside, this Yom Kippur was definitely a special, maybe even magical, experience that I will never forget.
Allison is a graduate of Emerson College in Boston, MA where she studied writing, documentary film production, and art & design. An American Girl in Israel was written based on her experiences while living and working in Tel Aviv in 2010. She is currently living and working in San Francisco, CA and you can check out her current work here.