Atonement on the Open Road, A Yom Kippur Story

An extraordinary thing happens in the metropolis of Tel Aviv, Israel’s city that never sleeps. As afternoon dims into dusk on the eve of Yom Kippur the city slows and is blanketed in a strange silence. While religious Jews dressed in holiday whites rush to synagogue to start atoning for the past year’s sins, a secular ritual is commencing.

Traffic thins and eventually disappears. Stores are overflowed with last-minute shoppers lining up to buy necessities to last the 25-hour holiday, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Parents drag out dusty bicycles from the prior year and children begin to anticipate the best day of the year by popping their head through parked cars to determine if it is finally safe to take to the streets. The sound of car horns and engines are replaced by bicycle bells and the sounds of screaming freedom. The country becomes an enormous playground for bicycle riders, skateboarders, rollerbladers, pedestrians, and even dogs.

Holidays in Israel are frequent, but Yom Kippur and the High Holidays are some of the most special and unique days in this country. Being in Israel and feeling this intense sense of community makes me realize that you don’t always need to fast or pray or obey the ancient religious laws in order to experience something holy. 

Yom Kippur is the day of atonement and the culmination of the High Holidays. Following 10 days after Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur is the final chance for Jews to return to God and receive his forgiveness. It is a day in which Jews, regardless of their religiousness, and frankly the whole of Israel, come to a halt. Jews mark the day of Yom Kippur by fasting, where no food or water is consumed for 25 hours. Fasting is not only a display of repentance but it is also to experience being truly hungry to arouse compassion for the poor. During the fast there is no washing, applying lotions or perfumes, wearing leather, or sexual relations. The fast begins at sundown after the Seudah Hamafseket, the meal eaten right before the fast, and extends to one hour after sundown on the next day.

Similar to the weekly Shabbat, all businesses close, including all restaurants and grocery stores. All transportation shuts down, both public and private transportation, as well as Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s major airport. No flights take off or arrive in the 25 hours, and the whole air space above Israel is shut down. The borders are closed and no one can enter the country. 

A screenshot of the roads on Yom Kippur

We decided to spend this holiday in the busiest city of Israel, Tel Aviv. We wanted to witness a city that is known for its hustling and bustling from a different perspective. A different perspective was exactly what we received. We arrived in the Florentine neighborhood of Tel Aviv around 2pm on the dawn of Yom Kippur, and were immediately warned to find food before the world shut its doors. As we strolled through the streets, we watched as frantic shoppers rushed through the city and shop owners began to lock their doors. At this moment, I don’t think I quite understood the immensity of this holiday and the idea of a city coming to a complete halt.

Even as I took Charlie out for a little spin just before sundown, when the cars became fewer and the world began to slow, I still didn’t fully understand what was about to commence. It was not until walking on Retsif Herbert Samuel Street, a main street in Tel Aviv that runs along the ocean, that I began to grasp the feeling of the world stopping. We walked in the very middle of the street as the sun was setting, surrounded by bikes, skateboards, scooters, and other walkers. On this exact street I have witnessed the worst traffic in the country. This exact street is where I almost had a panic attack and hightailed it out of the city back to Haifa. But once Yom Kippur began, there was a special peace and tranquility that hit this street and this country.

As the sun set, and people took to the street, the 25 hour biking ritual began. I could hardly wait till it morning when it was my turn to take to the streets. I can say with complete honesty that I just experienced the most bizarre, epic, and amazing ride of my life. The whole world turned into my oyster. No stop lights to force me to unclip my pedals, no turn was off limits, no cars to cut me off. Everywhere I turned, a perfectly groomed bike path. Never have I felt such a freedom. Not only is Yom Kippur the holiest day in Judaism, but it is also the holiest day for cyclists.

“Your bike is discovery; your bike is freedom. It doesn’t matter where you are, when you’re on the saddle, you’re taken away.”  – Doug Donaldson

It is the day when everyone becomes color blind, red and green become just green, freeway underpasses become shade for the tired biker or the avid picnickers, and little kids who live in busy cities have their first opportunity to learn to ride a bike. Never have I seen so many training wheels… It is the day when you can ride on a highway, you can choose whichever lane you want, or even go the wrong direction. You can see packs of kids on their bikes racing through city streets. The parents take a back seat and the children do exactly what they are told not to do all year. They enter the street without looking and go beyond their parents view of sight. The streets become paradise. On the most anticipated day of the year, kids become the kings and queens of the road.

Not only were the conditions absolutely perfect, the tradition of this holiday displayed some pretty hysterical sights. I witnessed a horse on the Avalon Highway, a cricket game on a usually busy street in the Florentine area, a pack of wheelchairs taking their turn as the kings and queens of the roads, and some epic bike races. Understandably, I also witnessed some gnarly crashes. When the whole country takes to bikes, regardless of their experience or skill level, there are bound to be a few issues.

Wheelchairs taking to the streets.

The most important part of Yom Kippur is the time spent in the synagogue. It was an incredible experience to walk the streets of Tel Aviv and hear the songs and chanting coming from inside each and every synagogue. The fast culminates after the final evening prayer, called Kol Nidrei. In this prayer God is asked to annul and forgive all oaths made under pressure. This is a reference to the religious oaths made in eras when Jews were forced to convert, usually to Christianity, or die.

As we were strolling through the Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv, we found ourselves outside a small synagogue that was just finishing up their Kol Nidrei Prayer. We watched as the community gathered to celebrate, all dressed in white and chanting in prayer together. It was amusing to watch as some strategically made their way towards the door mid-prayer for a quick escape, as I assume food was on their minds. With that one clear blast of the Shofar into the night, we watched as everyone took to the streets. It was right then that we were reminded of the sound of car engines and the color on the street lights began to once again matter. We watched as everyone rushed to their homes to meet their loved ones and rejoice over their break fast meal.

Although I did not participate in the fast, I certainly felt the holiness of this holiday. Not only was the biking epic, but the tradition and the culture that accompanies this holiday was special to experience. People talk about the diversity in Israel, how there are essentially separate populations that often conflict. But on this day, a mutual respect for each other is ever so present. There is no law stating that you cannot drive a vehicle, however, absolutely no one drives. Not the Muslims, the Christians, the Druze, or the Baha’i. Regardless of religion, everyone comes together to respect the holiday and its sanctity in this nation. The division between religious and secular also becomes unimportant.

I love the idea of taking a day each year to reflect. To ask for forgiveness and to give forgiveness. I appreciate that it allows you to move on in life with a clean palate. Although I do have a little guilt for not fully participating, Yom Kippur was a magical experience that I will never forget.

Gmar Hatima Tova!

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