Sunday, October 9, 2011
This is the Kotel (the "Western Wall" or the "Wailing Wall") in Jerusalem, at 2:00 a.m. on Friday October 7, 2011. From the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah until the day before Yom Kippur, tens of thousands of Jews make their way to the Kotel for Selichot prayers. The prayers are penitential prayers which are said as part or religious preparations leading up to Yom Kippur, usually between 11:30 p.m. and 6 a.m.
People come to Jerusalem from all over Israel to recite the Selichot prayers. Traffic to Jerusalem is madness. Many of the roads are closed to passenger vehicles. We tried our luck driving anyways and wound up spending quite a bit of time in the car. Eventually we parked a couple of kilometers away from the Old City and made our way to the Kotel by foot, moving along with thousands of other pedestrians.
We were not there for one of the main, official Selichot services. Instead, we saw groups of 10 or 15 people doing individual Selichot prayers. The area near the Kotel was so densely packed, it was next to impossible to move to the front and actually get near the wall. It was quite fascinating to see so many people there in the middle of the night. Though we left at 3:00 a.m. from the Kotel area, it might as well have been the middle of the day. The whole area was well lit and thousands of people were just arriving as others left. Luckily for us there was a 24 hour Aroma Coffee bar nearby, which must have been enjoying one of its busiest days of the year. Nothing like a cappuccino and a chocolate croissant to go with those penitential prayers...
We spent Yom Kippur this year in Ra'anana. From about 2:00 p.m., on Erev Yom Kippur (the day before) everything in Israel completely shuts down. The buses and trains stop running. The airport closes. Stores and restaurants close. Even the border crossings all close. By 5:00 p.m., when Yom Kippur starts and the fast begins, everyone stops driving. There is not a car on the road, other than emergency vehicles. It is actually amazing to see. There is no law that prohibits cars from driving and a significant percentage of the population does not observe the holiday in any religious way. Many are not Jewish. But nevertheless, there are simply no cars on the road.
Instead, Yom Kippur has become a national day of bicycling and walking. The day before Yom Kippur in Israel is the single biggest day of the year for bicycle sales. Secular kids and adults throughout the country go on lengthy cycling trips, riding in the middle of the main highways, with not a car in sight. Others walk up and down the main city streets, in the middle of the road.
We drove our car to our synagogue before Yom Kippur and parked it there before Yom Kippur started. After services, we walked backed to Ra'anana from K'far Saba (a walk of about an hour). There were thousands of people in the streets, walking along, chatting with each other and people they might bump into. The main street in Ra'anana (Ahuza Street) was filled with wall to wall people, strolling along and enjoying the chance to take over the main streets with no cars anywhere. For the kids, the highlight was sitting down on the main highway (Highway 4) as we crossed it from K'far Saba to Ra'anana. An erie sight to see one of Israel's busiest highways with no vehicles whatsoever.
Israel moved its clocks back one hour just before Yom Kippur to ensure that the fast would end earlier. So the scheduled time for the fast to end was 5:54 p.m. on
We walked to Yom Kippur services in Ra'anana in the morning. Again, it was quite the sight to see children bicycling, skate boarding and roller blading everywhere, on main streets and side streets, right in the middle of the road, as others walked to synagogues throughout the city, often dressed head to toe in white clothes.
According to a recent survey conducted, 85% of Israelis claimed that they fast during Yom Kippur, which is a remarkably high percentage considering the number of secular people in the country. I don't know what percentage would have also said that they were happy to take their kids out for a bike ride, while fasting, but that number must have also been quite high.
Strangely enough, a day that is seen as the most solemn and holy day on the Jewish calendar has probably become the most exciting day of the year for many Israeli youth. Nevertheless, many of these non-observant Jews head over to the nearest synagogue, with their children, to hear the Shofar being blown just after sunset, marking the end of another year in the Jewish calendar and the fresh beginning of a new one.
Shana Tova to all from Ra'anana.