October 4, 2006

Sukkot is in the Air

Chag Sameach to everyone. It is now just two days after Yom Kippur and I can already hear the hammering of poles, a rhythmic clanging, and the thrashing of palm fronds as they are cut down for schach. In fact, the majestic palms that line the thoroughfares here are shorn each October for schach, their fronds left in piles for the taking.

Here in Israel the sukkahs are not made of wooden boards. They have metal poles as a base with white curtains hung on them. Very regal, the white curtains gently billow and buffet in the warm breeze.

As soon as Yom Kippur is over, a huge Sukkah Fair is set up in Yad Levanim, the main square here in Raanana. Music blares while booths sprout up selling lulavim, etrogim, and decorations for the sukkah. Etrog sales people are eager to point out their perfect new crop. Yeshiva boys are out working the crowd, selling etrogim and lulavim for company ‘aleph’ and then getting a ‘cut’ for bringing in a customer.

And if you want a lulav demonstration, you can get one right away. Shopping for a brand new sukkah? Enter the sukkah stall and sit down to talk about dimensions, windows, pattern and color. And if you want, you can have installation included in the price. Tents are filled with flashing lights, pulsating lights, stringing lights. Ceilings are hung with paper pineapples, shiny apples, glass pomegranates. Kids run under foot, pointing at their favorite decorations then darting out with to play hide and seek behind a sukkah.

The greeting is now Chag Sameach and there is actually a team of people who work for the irya (the city) who make sure we know this. As I was returning from a bike ride yesterday, I was stuck on an island in the middle of a busy intersection waiting for the light to turn green. Suddenly a man appeared holding a new sign in his hand and a screwdriver. With a swirl of the tool, he quickly replaced the Shana Tova sign with a Chag Sameach sign, then went on to the next intersection – all this for the benefit of people waiting to turn left – and a lone biker or two!

We had the gardener come by to trim our trees in preparation for our sukkah. He brought his team of Thai workers donning large straw hats. Working with long shears, they pruned away the banana leaves and palm fronds. Seeing them work, if I closed by eyes, I could almost imagine I was back in Thailand passing by emerald rice paddies, where straw hats bobbed across green furrows, and boys rode atop water buffalo (but that is another chapter in another era!).

Our children are excitedly making sukkah decorations at school and I am about to pull out the Sukkah box from our meeklat (bomb shelter, which, Thank G-d, is again being used for storage). I wonder if our flashing lights still work…if not, I’ll be heading off to Ahuza because, just like that street sign, the Rosh Hashana merchandise has been ever so swiftly turned over to accommodate Sukkot. And so must I.

Chag Sameach!

Yom Kippur – G’mar Chatima Tova

It is Erev Yom Kippur and, once again, the streets are as busy as ever with everyone preparing for Yom Kippur. Here in Israel, most people fast no matter how religious they are. The paper runs articles on how to prepare for the fast and how to fast safely, complete with menu suggestions. The country even goes into daylight savings time the day before to accommodate the fast. This year, the fast begins in Raanana at 5:06 p.m. and ends at 6:01 p.m. the next day - very amenable times. The tradition is to dress in white on Yom Kippur so racks packed with white skirts and tops tumble onto the streets.

Erev Yom Tov is a holiday here; the children have no school and most parents have the day off work. The feeling today is almost Sunday-like and somewhat festive (since we usually rush from Motzei Shabbat right into weekday mode, it is a rarity to have a ‘day off’ with the shops open) ; families lounge in the coffee shops, and women run around picking up last minute items for the special meal before the fast. I saw a French woman toting two small children and a basket filled with fresh baguettes (a taste of the recent huge aliyah from France.) Men in black hats set up stalls on the streets offering passersby an opportunity to give tzedakah in preparation for Yom Kippur.

The greeting is changed from Shana Tova to G’mar Chatima Tova. (As we are all judged on Yom Kippur and our names are ‘inscribed,’ our future determined for the year, we ask that one receives good things in the year to come.

As I was walking Talya to a friend, a pick-up truck pulled onto a grassy area. Strapped on top were a few metal cages filled with chickens. The driver stepped out and placed a handful of papers on his windshield. It was a photocopy of the kaparot blessing, a blessing of atonement for our sins. This ancient ritual involves taking a live chicken (or money) and swinging it over our head while reciting the special blessing. Soon a crowd grew. Cars stopped to take a look. A line up began. Israelis love crowds and line ups -- even though they are not so good at keeping their spots in line. And what a line up it was: some women wore head scarves and long skirts, some wore tank tops and tight jeans. And all children - be it with long payes or not even a kippa on their head - stood silently in amazement as the chickens twirled above their heads.

Then suddenly, everything becomes quiet. The people disappear from the streets. The shops turn their signs to read ‘Closed’ and shutters are pulled down tightly and locked. And eventually, all cars disappear. The country becomes silent. From Metula to Eilat, all traffic ceases. The highways trickle with cars until not one motor is heard.

And then we light our Yom Tov candles. People hurry off to shul to hear Kol Nidre all dressed in white. Leather shoes are replaced with flip flops, running shoes, slippers, and this year, Crocs. We saw white flowing skirts and bright pink Crocs, crisp white shirts and black pants with brown Crocs – even girls in flowered dresses and tiny tippy toes ran by with miniature purple Crocs.

And as the streets fill with families in white carrying their machzorim to shul, so it fills with bicycles and skateboards. By the time we leave shul after Kol Nidre, the streets have been taken over by bicycles. We may call this a Day of Awe, while they (the entire non-religious population) call it the Day of Bicycles. Our minhag is to fast while their minhag is to go as fast as possible on a bike using the same lane of traffic for both directions – without bike helmets.

Since it is such a bizarre sight, and since we have little else to do after shul other than sleep, most people stroll to the main street to see what life looks like without cars on the road. By late evening, it becomes a scene with thousands of bikes flying down every street. Gangs of kids take over the roads, calling their friends on cell phones, sipping bottles of water, storming past pedestrians at top speed.

The first year I saw this, I thought it was interesting. This year, I look at it differently- it is deeply sad. Ariel’s friends were so offended, they stood in the path of the cyclists and chanted ‘Yom Kippur.’ I know this is not the right tactic but I don’t know what would work – and we desperately need an answer!

Yom Kippur day is bright, warm and breezy. We walk to shul down the middle of the road, the only sound a lone ambulance making its way past cyclists. The day is heavy, somber, silent. We daven and daven and daven. And after the neilah prayers and then the ma’ariv prayers, we all feel light, fresh, free, relieved. Wishing each other a hearty Shana Tova, we hurry home to feed our empty tummies. And the cars quickly fill the roads, enveloping the clean silence with a rush of metal and fumes.

Shana Tova

After having been in Israel for one year, we still feel very privileged to be living in a place where the Jewish calendar is an integral part of life – a magical rhythm no matter how religiously affiliated one is.

Looking out my kitchen window when I do the dishes, I just have to glance across at my neighbour’s garden to know that Rosh Hashana is here; their tall pomegranate tree proudly displays its plump red fruit just in time for the chag.

And in the days leading up to Rosh Hashana, there is a festive spirit everywhere. Everyone wishes each other Shana Tova; at the grocery check out, in the bakery, and at the gas station. The custom here is to give gifts to friends and neighbors so every store displays their goods in beautiful baskets and boxes, prettily wrapped in cellophane and tied with bows.

The Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me'uman mobile is out on the street today, blaring its music to a rap melody. The driver wears a large white crochet kippa, a huge smile and practically dances in his seat. These cars are driven around by the breslev hassidim, whose joy is effusive.

And one cannot walk a block without seeing stacks of honey for sale. Some stores even have clerks who stand beside tables filled with huge rolls of wrapping paper, packaging gift after gift – the line ups are long but everyone waits their turn and is in a great mood.

The butchers across town are also busily preparing people’s orders and offering special recipes for the taking – prefaced with a Shana Tova. This greeting appears on the billboards and the mayor here sent everyone a special Shana Tova greeting in the mail.

It has been a very hard year here in Israel for all, especially this past summer. But as you can imagine from the brief description of life here on Ahuza, the main street in Raanana, everyone is optimistic and is preparing for a positive, sweet year. May we have a year of peace.

Shana Tova u’bracha!