In my own write: Beyond the bikes

Yom Kippur is not just a religious day; it’s an Israeli day.

Bicycle and helmet [illustrative] (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Bicycle and helmet [illustrative]
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
This weekend, we will experience a phenomenon unique to this country. Israel’s roads, including the main urban arteries, will become empty of vehicles, and a palpable silence will replace the usual roar of traffic.
Then the bicycles will come out in their hundreds and thousands, bigger kids on full-sized models, smaller kids on training wheels or pedaling furiously on tricycles, speeding merrily along routes where few of them can venture on any other day of the year.
This is their eagerly anticipated “fast” for Yom Kippur, and they wouldn’t give it up for anything. Many parents have spent time and money over the preceding days on ensuring that their offsprings’ wheels are in good repair, equal to the demands their youthful owners will be making of them.
Meanwhile, religious Jews on their way to solemn synagogue worship, deprived of bodily sustenance and relying on spiritual nourishment alone, will observe this activity tolerantly or tut-tuttingly, according to their natures. All, consciously or subconsciously, will feel the gulf between their temporarily elevated inner selves and these young revelers putting so much physical effort into having a good time.
“I don’t know why you insist on printing a picture of children riding their bicycles on Yom Kippur each year,” a Jerusalem Post reader complained in a letter to the editor in 2013, suggesting that this year’s post-Yom Kippur edition include instead a photo of the throngs of people making their way to shul on the eve of the fast. “There is more to Yom Kippur than just children riding their bicycles,” she added.
Indeed; and on this day, alternative movements and groups have been reaching out for some years now with music and song, lectures on social consciousness and environmental responsibility and study groups on ethics and morality in an effort to make Yom Kippur a meaningful experience for the many Israelis who would not willingly set foot in a synagogue.
IF OUR observant and secular populations seem – particularly on the Day of Atonement – far removed from one another, it might be worth breaking the word into its composite parts: at-one-ment, and reflecting that while we might view the day in very different ways, we are yet united in some fundamental aspects, like showing respect.
Some secular Israelis fast on Yom Kippur. Most do not; but neither do they hold barbecues on their balconies to tempt or taunt the abstainers. Whatever eating they do takes place inside their homes.
Or take the business of driving, which modern man everywhere regards as his natural, inalienable right whenever and wherever he chooses. Israelis in particular are great individualists and resent any feeling that they are being coerced or imposed upon.
Yet even though there is no law against driving on Yom Kippur, secular Israelis are virtually unanimous in demonstrating consideration for their fellow religious Jews, joining them voluntarily in keeping their vehicles parked on that one day. (Alternatively, they drive off to distant locations before the fast begins, returning only once it is over).
And perhaps the morning after, as someone commented, they join in appreciation of the fact that “skies are clear, pollution is zero and vision is fantastic.”
FOR SOME years now, liberal Tel Aviv has aimed on Yom Kippur to balance its religious population’s sensibilities with its mostly secular residents’ desire for access to the popular Tel-O-Fun biking rental scheme.
It does this by not physically renting out bikes on the fast day – which involves collecting money, answering telephones, and so on; but those who hold annual subscriptions may collect their bikes before the onset of Yom Kippur and return them next day after the fast has ended without incurring any extra charge. All other renters must pay for the entire period regardless of how much they have used the bikes since they cannot be returned during the fast.
This compromise notwithstanding, in 2012 a Ynet op-ed contributor decried Tel Aviv’s Yom Kippur bike rental as “secular fanaticism,” warning that the municipality’s decision to permit it at all on the sacred day threatened the country’s identity. That sort of thing, he said, was turning the first Hebrew city “into a city that has no connection to religion and Judaism.”
This statement sounds extreme; but the writer went on to make some persuasive points about Yom Kippur as a national, unifying force.
His advocacy of total suspension of the bike rental service on Yom Kippur had nothing to do with religious coercion, he held, because “Yom Kippur is not a religious day; it is an Israeli day [my italics – JM]. It is one of the state’s symbols, and you do not have to observe the Torah and the mitzvot to deem Yom Kippur a holy day.”
Avid seculars fast on Yom Kippur, the writer noted. “Even those who regularly eat bacon with cheese feel uncomfortable upon hearing that an Israeli who plays for a European basketball team took part in a game that was held on Yom Kippur.
“Eat falafel, go to a [Yom Ha’atzmaut] barbecue, but also fast one day a year – this is what it means to be Israeli in modern times.”
Israeli identity, the writer pointed out, is made up of several elements, and many originate in the religious world. But that is immaterial. “What matters is that Yom Kippur was adopted by the majority of the public, completely or partially, and earned a central place in the pantheon of our national symbols, alongside the anthem and the IDF.”
Yom Kippur is an integral part of the cultural world of many Israelis, he noted, warning that “if secular fanaticism threatens to uproot the religious components that have become part of the Israeli common denominator...
the definition ‘Israeli’ will continue to exist, but it will be devoid of any real meaning.”
If Israeli society wants to preserve its national assets, he concluded, “it must be aware of the danger of becoming an overly lenient, unrestrained society in which nothing is sacred.”
What I liked so much about this admittedly strident op-ed writer was his rejection of Yom Kippur in Israel as the exclusive property of its Orthodox Jews and his profound conviction that, on the contrary, the day belongs to all Israeli Jews – indeed, to the very concept of Jewish Israeliness.
ANOTHER TYPICAL only-in-Israel sight during this High Holiday season is the little succa-retail encampments that spring up in unexpected locations prior to the festival.
Jewish tradition mandates starting the building of one’s succa immediately after Yom Kippur ends, so this week my husband and I joined the many Jerusalemites in search of the necessary materials, or – as in our case – a simple-to-assemble booth that we hoped would not tax our combined construction skills too heavily.
“It’s as easy as Lego,” said Assaf, working out of a gas station parking lot on Pierre Koenig St., where he and a bunch of associates had put up several rather attractive succot, one beside the other.
As we compared sizes and prices, I received another reminder of the fact that diverse as we Israelis may be in belief and behavior, more unites us than we may suspect.
I asked Assaf for a rough breakdown of his customer base. Was it overwhelmingly religious Israeli families who shopped for a succa in order to fulfill the mitzva laid down in Leviticus 23:42, “And you shall dwell in booths seven days”? Not at all, he replied. “About 30 percent of our customers are hilonim [secular Jews].”
Added his fellow salesman with a broad smile: “Succot is a holiday for the whole nation of Israel.”
It’s a welcome thought.