My Word: An Israeli autumn

It is a special time of year with its own unique feel; an aura, almost.

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 intervening days.
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.
It’s 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.
Yet here 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.
It is a special time of year. In Israel, it has its own unique feel; an aura, almost.
Heralding the fall is the blooming of the squill (hatzav) and the sighting of the first wagtails, praised in song in kindergartens throughout the country.
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.
I 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 stoning...”
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.
There 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 surveys.
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 notwithstanding.
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 Jerusalem.”
Whatever the news, whatever the year might bring, we begin preparing for the next festival, Succot, just four days later.
Here in 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.
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