I’m writing this before Yom Kippur.
Why do I mention that? Because I’m
aware that most of you will be reading this only after the holiest day of the
Jewish calendar – and I have no idea of what will have happened in the
In most countries – what we dreamily refer to as
“normal” countries – the lapse in time probably wouldn’t make much of a
difference. But this is Israel.
This is the only country in the world in
which Yom Kippur is not only marked: It is truly felt.
This is also the
only country where our default for religious holidays is the fear that something
bad could happen; if not here, then to our brethren in the Diaspora.
probably related to the Holocaust, an American Jewish visitor once told me, but
she was wrong. As an Israeli, I suspect it has far more to do with the 1973 Yom
Kippur War, when the country was caught completely off guard by the multi-front
attack by the Arab countries surrounding us. As a Jew, I believe it stems from
something much farther back in our history – the biblical injunction to
“remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt!” Twice a year we read
the commandment to remember the iniquity of Amalek and his descendants and to
tell our children, in each generation, about the way he attacked us at our
weakest, during the Exodus, as we set out for the Promised Land.
we are. Despite everything.
AS I WRITE, the radio is playing a unique
genre of songs, known in Hebrew as “Stav Yisraeli,” an Israeli autumn.
is a special time of year. In Israel, it has its own unique feel; an aura,
Heralding the fall is the blooming of the squill (hatzav) and the
sighting of the first wagtails, praised in song in kindergartens throughout the
The media are full of end-of-year round-ups – singer of the
year, story of the year, picture of the year. The weather forecasters have
announced that the welcome recent rain counts as the “yoreh,” using the biblical
Hebrew term for the first rain of autumn. They also predicted that the weather
for Yom Kippur will be “comfortable.”
Where else would the weather for
the Yom Kippur fast be covered prime time? Shoe shops are having sales on
non-leather shoes (worn on the Day of Atonement); bicycle stores are having
campaigns to meet the heavy demand of the day when all traffic stops and
children take to the streets on bikes and scooters. Supermarkets have prepared
for the pre-Yom Kippur rush, because we all eat more before and after the fast.
Buses carry greetings for the New Year.
There are slihot tours of
penitential prayers said in synagogues big and small. The Bible Lands Museum in
Jerusalem is holding an exhibition of shofarot and there are so many events and
happenings being planned for the upcoming Succot festival that even the most
frenetic reveler could not participate in them all.
In my neighborhood,
families have started building succot booths in their gardens and on balconies.
It is a peculiarly Israeli architectural feature that homes have both “succa
balconies” – enabling residents to erect biblical booths with an unobstructed
view of the sky – and safe rooms to provide protection from missiles.
RECENTLY got into a discussion with other Israeli journalists about the custom
of using the phrase “Gmar hatima tova” at this time of the year. Even the most
secular agreed that the wish to be sealed in the Book of Life could not hurt.
“It’s always best to be on the safe side,” quipped one.
It’s a period in
which our distinctly Israeli and Jewish characteristics are as obvious as can
be. When a Knesset committee last week reviewed the proposals of the Trajtenberg
Committee, addressing the myriad socioeconomic complaints raised by the summer’s
mass protests, members joked over whether they should say Shehehiyanu, the
blessing for having reached this time.
Over a Rosh Hashana meal with
friends, we discussed the reputed origins of the powerful Unetaneh Tokef prayer.
Legend has it that it was composed on his deathbed by an 11thcentury sage, Rabbi
Amnon of Mainz, after the local bishop ordered that his limbs be amputated, one
by one, for refusing to convert.
Perhaps its most moving passage reads:
“On Rosh Hashana will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many
will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who
will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by
water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst,
who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by
The prayer provided the inspiration for the famous Leonard
Cohen song “Who by fire.” In Israel, in song form it is better known for having
been put to music by Yair Rosenblum – word for powerful word – as a tribute to
the 11 sons of Kibbutz Beit Hashita who fell in the Yom Kippur War.
it is again, the fear of war.
And yet Israelis aren’t just happy to be
alive, they’re happy, period – or so it would seem from the latest
According to a Gallup poll, Israel ranks eighth on the global
happiness index, higher than Australia, the US and all of Europe. Israel’s
Central Bureau of Statistics also consistently finds us satisfied with our
lives, the justified gripes of this summer’s tent protesters
News of our latest Nobel Prize – our 10th in case you’re
counting – added to the holiday season mood. I say “our” because Prof. Dan
Shechtman’s win for his ground-breaking work in chemistry was definitely
perceived as a source of national pride.
Maybe we’re so happy because
we’ve already been through so much – and thrived – that we can actually still
see a future, here, in the Jewish state.
There can be no more solemn a
moment than the final blast of the shofar as Yom Kippur ends. Yet as soon as the
last note fades, the sound of singing rings out: “Next year in rebuilt
Whatever the news, whatever the year might bring, we begin
preparing for the next festival, Succot, just four days later.
Israel, the Jewish holidays dictate the rhythm of life. No wonder we rank high
in the happiness polls: We are free to be happy.The writer is editor of
The International Jerusalem Post.firstname.lastname@example.org