For all the holidays in the Jewish calendar and on Shabbat there are restrictions on working and kindling fire. Among other things this means no driving and no electricity. But in Israel the majority of people are secular and with a 6-day working week the only time for family trips is Shabbat. So although certain religious areas block the roads to motor vehicles most streets have light traffic.
Yom Kippur is the exception. The streets in all residential areas, except in the Arab villages, are empty of traffic and the vehicles on the main roads are scarce.
As people go back and forth to synagogue or just stroll around to pass the time they walk fearlessly down the middle of the street. Traditionally children congregate on the streets to ride their bikes.
It is a remarkable experience but for us it presents a problem – our synagogue is a 15 minute drive away. People living in less traditional areas might risk a short drive but in Shlomi, though most of the good citizens are resting at home or praying dutifully in synagogue, there is always a couple of extremist hooligans who throw stones at passing motorists.
We have tried to visit the local synagogues for the closing service but my husband isn’t interested in praying with a group of strangers while I am stuck up in the women’s gallery hardly able to hear the prayers and too distracted by gossiping women and whining children to be able to follow the service.
Thankfully this year a generous friend from our congregation invited us to spend the fast at her home.
I am always a little nervous about fasting due to the fact that I have low blood pressure and low blood sugar, in addition to a tendency to dehydrate. One year I fainted on the way to synagogue so my husband now insists that I drink some water and tries to get me to eat if he thinks I am looking faint.
I chose a couple of books that I think will be both interesting and easy to read, while still suitable for such a serious day. And my lightest, most comfortable clothes. It is still summer in Israel and getting heat stroke does not make the fasting any easier, though this year was a little cooler, not the usual Yom Kippur heat wave.
In England it was already autumn by the time Yom Kippur came around and as we travelled to the synagogue light rain would be falling. I would resist my thirsty urge to stick out my tongue and catch a few drops but I felt a guilty pleasure as the refreshingly cold moisture cooled my skin. It seemed to renew my strength for the long closing service.
We arrived at our friends’ house an hour or so before the fast in order to join them and another guest in the pre-fast meal and then before Yom Kippur started we drove round to the synagogue.
Normally the congregation is about 70 strong on Friday evening, which causes no seating problems. However from previous experience we knew many more people would turn up during the High Holidays and especially on Yom Kippur.
To cope with this and other Holiday requirements the seating was rearranged with the first five rows reserved for members and ushers to assist the visitors.
Even though we arrived early, because my husband had been volunteered as an usher, there was already quite a large group of people waiting outside.
Among this group were some people from Nes Ammim, a local village populated by young Christians from Germany and Holland.
They like to join our congregation to experience Jewish holidays. Because most of them don’t stay here for a long time only a few speak Hebrew so my husband’s English came in particularly useful.
While my husband was ushering I rushed around greeting all our friends and then sat saving seats for the rest of our family. After a while it became obvious that even if my children didn’t join in the organised activities they would be playing outside with their friends so I gave their seats to an older couple. I moved over to give the couple the aisle seats mistakenly thinking this would be more convenient, forgetting that our children like to pop in and check on us during the service. The next day I ensured we had aisle seats.
Once the service started I was naturally engrossed in the prayers and didn’t look round until we were about halfway through. I was stunned. Many people had arrived after the start of services and the place was packed. We estimated it at about 250.
After services we greeted other members in the congregation with wishes for an easy fast. There were so many in the congregation that it took quite a while to get out then we rounded up the children and walked home. Despite the serious nature of Yom Kippur it is also very sociable. All the major TV and radio stations close down, even those on cable, so people take to the streets, wandering round town, meeting with friends. It was surreal to stand idly chatting in the middle of a large junction.
The children take advantage of the traffic-less streets to joyride on their bikes; this year rollerblading was also popular. We arranged a play date with some friends so that our children would be occupied while we were attending synagogue and then we retired to bed.
As a teenager I always slept my way through most of Yom Kippur. Nowadays I am not so lucky and I woke just after 6am with the children. They were sleeping in the room used by our host’s grandchildren so had plenty of toys and games to occupy them. I read to pass the time until my husband was ready to get up.
We dressed, gave the children something to eat and then left for the play date. We discussed where we would me up after morning service because although my husband had his mobile for emergencies I didn’t really want to phone him unless absolutely necessary. We stood in the middle of a roundabout discussing this, which was definitely surreal, and then I walked to synagogue while he went to supervise the children.
The anarchist in me felt the urge to walk down the middle of the road but the sun was becoming stronger and the pavement was in shade.
There were several dozen people already in synagogue, most of them draped in talitot. I felt silly for not having brought my own decorative tallit from my bat mitzvah. I wasn’t sure whether I would felt comfortable wearing it and whether the decoration would be too colourful for the solemnity of Yom Kippur. My memory of Kippur in England is of dark blues and greys and other muted shades, though that was probably more due to the English Autumn than anything else. I will wear my own tallit next year.
Due to transportation issues I have never been to the opening service or morning service of Yom Kippur and it was a special experience to look round at so many friendly faces. Many people were surprised to see we were able to attend.
I walked home with my hosts. At home we found my husband alone. The children had joined with their friends and gone to another friend’s house. It seems they were biking and rollerblading all over town, pit stops kindly provided by the other friend’s mother. I felt a little guilty letting someone else entertain my children but I could hardly start cooking for a whole gaggle of children in my host’s house and I was starting to feel a little weak so I was glad to rest.
We set off to closing services a little early so my husband could do his duty as an usher. Going by previous years we could expect around 300 people to turn up.
We met the children and their friends outside. My daughter was on rollerblades and doing quite well even though we walked up a slight incline. Our son was trundling up and down the street on a corquinette (scooter in English, I think!). They accompanied us to the synagogue and then stayed to play outside, later joining the other children in the organised activities.
I settled into my seat preparing myself for the long closing service. I always remember it as a sort of endurance test with much of the service spent standing just at the end of 25 hours of fasting when you are at your weakest.
Now that I can follow the service the standing seemed more bearable though of course I could have sat down if I needed to.
The Memorial Service was quite emotional with several members of the congregation in tears and then there was excitement as we starting the closing service and could feel the fast drawing to an end. Finally the lights were dimmed and the children processed from the back of the synagogue waving around small torches, the shadows reflected on the walls and ceiling. Then they joined with the cantoress calling out to the Rabbi as he blew the Shofar!
Some people rushed straight out, others stayed for a few announcements and comments by the Rabbi. I was in no state to rush anywhere and after the elation of the Shofar realised I was feeling a bit faint and dizzy.
We had left the car near the synagogue so we could drive home quickly at the end of the fast but I think it was a mistake as my dizziness was augmented by the car ride and I began to feel rather strange.
Back at our host’s house I had a drink and sat down and began to feel a little better. The meal was delicious and there were other guests so there was interesting conversation but by the end of the meal my body was not dealing well with the sudden spike in blood sugar and I had to lay down for a while.I recovered a little after a while but unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay and be sociable.
The journey home wasn’t a lot of fun as feeling faint always exacerbates my travel sickness but I was able to roll down my window and enjoy the cool air.
Once home I went to lay down and after a night’s rest I was fully recovered.