October 4, 2006

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.

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