Yom Kippur in Israel
I suppose we are not supposed to think of Yom Kippur as a "fun" holiday - after all how much fun can it be to fast (no food or water) for 26 hours while spending 7-8 hours in Synagogue (even more for some), much of that standing up? But Yom Kippur is really a special day - wherever we might be observing it - and all the more so here in Israel. Here in Israel, pretty much all traffic stops across the country, other than emergency vehicles and some non-conformists (it is not "illegal" to drive). The airports are closed - and just about everything else is closed.
For the past 15 years or so, we have been participating in a small community service. It has been held, at different times, at different people's homes, at a shul we have rented out (that shul itself rents out a school gym because it has too many people to fit in its building). Usually it is a five or ten minute walk from our place in Ra'anana. This year, that meant spending about 10 minutes each way 6 times, in 31-34c heat - with high humidity. As we were walking through the streets, we passed by many different people on their way to shul, many dressed all in white, from head to toe. Very few actually wearing suits, which is a good thing in light of the heat.
Of course we also saw hundreds of kids with their bicycles, some accompanied by parents or other adults, many on their own, taking advantage of the car-free streets to ride around the city - or even to go and ride on empty highways. For those who are observing Yom Kippur in a religious way and for those who "observe" in a non-religious way - it is a special day for all.
For Israel, our service is somewhat unique. Although we cover most of the traditional liturgy, including the Torah readings, haftarah readings and different prayer services, using traditional tunes ("nusach") our service is a fully egalitarian, Conservative ("Masorti") service. While egalitarian is the norm in most Conservative and Reform congregations in the U.S. and Canada, it only represents a small minority of the shul-going public in Israel. Here the vast majority of synagogues follow Orthodox traditions and are decidedly non-egalitarian.
With the higher than normal heat, an outdoor service - and the fact that I was the one leading Kol Nidrei and Neilah this year - as well as as assisting with the morning services, I have to say that I was a bit thirstier than usual this year. But we made it through, I was able to get a reasonably decent sound from our Shofar at the end - and we enjoyed a tasty community break-fast with our fellow congregants.
As we were walking home, we could already hear the sounds of clanging metal bars as people were starting to assemble their Sukkot - temporary booths for the festival of Sukkot which starts only four days after Yom Kippur.
Now on a side note - even though I should have been all "shul-ed out" by this point - I decided to turn on the Park Avenue Synagogue stream and watch the PAS Neilah service. (Sorry to my Toronto Beth Tikvah community...). That was about 12:30 a.m. at night here - well after the holy day had ended in Israel. Although musical instruments in a shul are not necessarily my thing (I don't really know of many, if any other conservative shuls that use them other than PAS), I have to say that it is a real pleasure to watch Hazan Azi Schwartz. It was really a musical treat.
In addition, Rabbi Cosgrove ran a flawless service. I was particularly moved by his near closing discussion of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which forms part of the Musaf service in the morning of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Unetanah Tokef is the "centrepiece" of the Yom Kippur Musaf service - and, among other things, the source for Leonard Cohen's "who by fire." In very short - I think you could probably still watch the service on the PAS site if interested - Cosgrove - explained that the final lines of the prayer "Prayer, Repentance and Acts of Charity can cancel the harshness of the decree" is intended to mean that by doing great things with the time we have in this world - we can lessen the harshness of the reality that our time is limited and there is a great deal of uncertainty - even if we can't change those facts themselves. I hope that does some justice to Rabbi Cosgrove - but I thought it was really a wonderful and meaningful discussion near the very end of Yom Kippur.
Some Current Events
As usual, there is a great deal going on here in Israel, and I will just comment on a few things.
Tel Aviv Yom Kippur Incident
I could write a whole blog about this one but here is my very short version. A group called "Rosh Yehudi" - the Jewish Head (Probably taken from a Yiddishe Kop ) - announced that it wanted to run an Orthodox prayer service in Dizengoff Square. The Tel-Aviv City council authorized the service provided that there was no mehitzah put up - i.e. that there was no physical barrier erected between men and women - which is a normal feature in an Orthodox shul. The Tel Aviv City council noted that there are some 500 shuls in Tel-Aviv, mostly Orthodox and that the City Centre is a public place, open to all, without barriers. Rosh Yehudi tried its luck in court and lost. The court upheld the ban on erecting a mehitzah in a public square. Well wouldn't you know it, Rosh Yehudi and its Rabbi (who has gotten himself into all kinds of trouble with a torrent of homophobic comments) decided to show up and run the service with a mehitzah anyways, in Dizengoff Square - the heart of Tel-Aviv. Many people in the square decided to sit wherever they pleased and disregard the mehitzah. It turned chaotic and became a huge disruption. TV and radio stations are discussing it around the clock. And now Itamar Ben-Gvir, cabinet member from the Religious Zionist party (and current Minister of National Security in the Netanyahu government) has announced that he is going to bus in hundreds of worshippers and run a service with a mehitzah in Dizengoff Square in defiance of the court order on Thursday night. Even some of his coalition partners, including Simcha Rotman (who is fairly extreme himself) and Bezalel Smotrich (who is an off the charts fanatic) are calling Ben-Gvir's plan "provocative" and "unnecessary." If Ben-Gvir goes ahead - things may get completely crazy in Tel-Aviv on Thursday night. Some Ben-Gvir supporters called "the Family" (as in the Mafia family) have announced they will come and "participate." Among other things, Ben-Gvir is really trying to ignite a religious war - there is no other objective way to look at it. **Breaking news update - Ben-Gvir or his spokespeople have announced that he has cancelled his proposed event for Thursday night. I would imagine that for Ben-Gvir this amounts to a tactical delay rather than any kind of change in policy.
US Visa Waiver Program
As you might know, Israelis have generally required visas to visit the U.S. unless they have another passport that is part of the Visa Waiver Program. It can be notoriously difficult for Israelis to get their U.S. visas and can often take months if not years to set up appointments and get through the process. Over the past few years, U.S. Ambassadors to Israel have been working with Israeli politicians including Bennett, Shaked, Lapid, and now Netanyahu to get Israel into the VWP. One challenge is that Israel would be required to treat all Americans equally when they arrive in Israel - including Palestinian Americans living in the West Bank and in Gaza - even those who might be a security threat. Nevertheless, Israeli officials announced this week - that the program will come into effect as early as October 2023 - and Israelis will no longer need visas to visit the U.S. U.S. officials have called the announcement premature - but it looks like it is coming. Maybe we will now run into some fellow Israelis when visiting New York City?
Israeli-Saudi Arabia Normalization
Prime Minister Netanyahu is on an all-out blitz campaign to try to bring about a peace deal and "normalization" with Saudi Arabia - at as low a cost as possible. Certainly, some Israelis have already been showing up in Saudi Arabia for events - and planes are flying over Saudi Arabia from Israel as we speak.
We do not know all of the details of what is being negotiated. But the Saudis have apparently been demanding that Israel make significant concessions towards the Palestinians and that the Saudis are able to develop a "peaceful" nuclear program. Netanyahu's coalition partners have stated quite clearly that they will oppose these concessions. So Netanyahu is in a bit of a spot - as he tries to juggle U.S. pressure to agree to a deal with domestic pressure to get a deal without giving up anything. I'm not convinced the deal will happen that quickly - but it would be a major foreign policy accomplishment for Netanyahu and for Biden.
Canada's Parliament Honours a Nazi War Criminal
Canada made the news around the world this week - especially in Israel (as well as Russia and Poland and other places) when the Canadian speaker of the house dredged up a Ukrainian war criminal (former member of the SS - volunteer Ukrainian brigade) and introduced him in the Parliament as a "war hero" while President Zelensky was visiting from the Ukraine. Quite sickening really - one would have thought somebody would do a background check. The truly sad part of the story is why Canada admitted so many war criminals after WWII and failed to prosecute them or extradite them. Very embarrassing. And Sad.
Yom Kippur War Commemoration
As you may now, this year marked the 50th Anniversary of the Yom Kippur war, in which Egypt and Syria launched a major surprise attack against Israel - causing massive casualties in the Israeli armed forces - and leading Israel to fear for its existence, especially in the early days of the war. Only after several days of fighting, Israel managed to turn things around in the Golan and in the Sinai. By the end of the war, Israel had a strong upper hand - even though the Americans and USSR stepped in and prevented Israel from inflicting serious damage to the Syrian and Egyptian armies. Israel lost close to 2,700 soldiers in that war, its second highest total number of casualties - after the Israel War of Independence in 1948.
Needless to say, there have been quite a large number of TV shows, movies, radio shows and other media discussing and analyzing different aspects of the war. I watched one show on Monday night which was put together by Yehoram Gaon, a well known Israeli singer. It focused on musicians who spent the 1973 war entertaining troops near the front lines, not knowing whether the soldiers they were entertaining would ever return. The show included footage of Canadian singer Leonard Cohen z"l, who flew to Israel when the war broke out and spent close to a month singing for soldiers during the war. It also included footage and interviewers with a whose-who of the Israeli music industry - Gidi Gov, Shlomo Artzi, Chava Alberstein and many others played prominent roles. There have been many other shows - about Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, about all of the losses that Israeli suffered, about the link between 1973 and the subsequent peace deal with Egypt and about many other topics. Unfortunately, I am too busy to watch all of it - but there are some really interesting angles and discussions being presented.
Of course that was an intentional segue. As you will recall if you read my last blog - I mentioned two of the "Jewish-themed" movies that were being released. I hadn't seen them at the time.
I had a chance to watch Golda late Saturday night - a day before Yom Kippur. It is a very dark movie. It is not a biopic about Golda. Rather it only deals with how she handled the Yom Kippur war in October 1973 - and how she responded to a commission of inquiry in Israel a year later. Helen Mirren does an excellent job of bringing Golda to life - which seemed to be quite an authentic portrayal.
Many of the scenes show Golda Meir smoking - just about everywhere - in meetings, in her bed, while speaking to doctors - or while receiving treatments for cancer. There are many close ups as things seem to have been frozen in time at key parts - perhaps to emphasize the existential importance of some of the decisions Meir had to make. I don't think it is fair to say that the movie dumps the blame for the war on Meir - certainly Moshe Dayan, and other army officials seem to have made some disastrous errors - the film suggests. The movie also suggests that Meir laid the groundwork for a future peace deal with Sadat by insisting on recognition and face to face meetings to end the conflict. Overall, I thought it was an interesting film, even though it has its flaws.
One criticism has been that there are scenes in the movie with background Arabic and Hebrew discussion and no sub-titles. Maybe that will be corrected. I understood the Hebrew but I can certainly see how that would be frustrating. Another criticism is that it is ultimately a war movie, but with little or no war footage. In any case, as a time-limited character study of Golda and how she handled a serious crisis, I thought the film did a good job.
It would take quite a stretch to tie in this blog to the other recent movie I saw - Adam Sandler's "You are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah." I am generally not a huge Adam Sandler fan - and I have to admit I was tempted to turn this off after about five minutes. The target audience is probably 11 to 15 year old girls and I guess that is not quite my category. But as they say, I wanted to see what all the yichus was about - so I stuck it out and watched the whole thing.
There are quite a number of cringey scenes, Sandler humour (often not in the best of taste - but maybe suited to 11 to 15 year-olds) - and lots of scenes of the stereotypical bar and bat mitzvah "spectacles" - of the type that one might find in some very wealthy communities particularly in the U.S. I thought the crazy Israeli DJ - "DJ Shmuly" was a character that I have seen before at bar and bat mitzvahs while my kids were doing a version of the circuit in Toronto. The Rabbi was also an interesting character - trying to find new and "hip" ways to appeal to the kids.
I actually thought that the ending was fairly good, if predictable (I won't spoil anything) and the movie wound up being "not as bad as I thought it might be" at the start. Sandler himself was pretty good as a father and some of the other characters performed well. I wouldn't really want people watching this movie as their only exposure to bar and bat mitzvahs and thinking that this is what it is all about - but the reality for many Jews whether in North America or in Israel - is that many of these events are all about the party.
Israel is aiming to make it into the FIFA 2024 Euro Soccer championships. They have a reasonable shot and play some huge games on October 12, 2023 vs Switzerland and October 15, 2023 vs. Kosovo. So still a few weeks to go - but these are some enormous soccer matches for Israel's national team.
In other interesting news, Israel has been chosen to host the World Under 19 Soccer Championship Finals in 2027. That should be very exciting.
I have been staying up late this week watching the Blue Jays try to secure a spot in the MLB playoffs. So you know where to find me at 3 a.m. Israel time - at least for one or two more days. Hard to watch those games here - without a proper streaming service, though I do have one that seems to work most of the time.
That's about it for now - time to go and put up the new "downsized" sukkah - for a much smaller crowd this year. Forecast in Israel is for some very hot weather until at least Monday or Tuesday and then some nice Sukkot rain - scheduled to start even before we say the annual "prayer for rain."
Wishing everyone a joyous, fun Sukkot holiday and a Shana Tova!