Yom Kippur, Israeli-Style

September 19, 2010

In the States, Yom Kippur always emitted feelings of seclusion; a few of us were excused from school for the day, only to be tortured by the smells of nearby cafes and restaurants that floated through the synagogue doors. But in Israel, Yom Kippur takes on an entirely new meaning.


Sometime during the midday heat on Friday, Israel literally shut down.  Tel Aviv, with its orchestra of car horns and bus exhaust and squeaking brakes, suddenly fell into silence.  In preparation for the chag, or holiday, all businesses and roads were closed and would remain so until Saturday evening.

After dinner on Friday, we walked outside to explore the streets and neighborhoods surrounding our apartment.  Couples walked by pushing babies in strollers, dogs trotted along (unleashed as always) beside their owners, and children passed calmly beside us on their bikes and skateboards.  The concrete reflected greens and reds as the traffic lights changed back and forth, regardless of the quiet streets.

Saturday was no different; with no TV (channels are temporarily disabled), the day became a mixture of board games and walking.  The beaches and streets were dotted with people.  As the sun began to set, symbolizing the end of both Shabbat and Yom Kippur, we walked towards Hayarkon (the main street running parallel to the water) to watch the sunset.  Bikers pulled over to lean against the railing and groups of people sat in the grassy medians and on the sidewalks to watch the pinkish orange sun set behind the ocean.

On the walk home, some of the store coverings had been lifted, padlocks were being removed, and “Money for Nothing” was already playing from the outside speakers of the sushi restaurant below our building.

The holiday, for me, wasn’t about religion at all.  In fact, on an hour long visit to the nearby synagogue, I felt disconnected from Yom Kippur and the feeling that had begun to build.

Tel Aviv is in all senses of the word a secular place; the majority of its inhabitants do not partake in the fasting and services.  But there is something to be said about 36 hours of quiet and that in itself was more meaningful to me than any Yom Kippur of the past.



September 13, 2010

“You want to live here?” he said, standing in the doorway with his helmet on. “You want to live here, in the Middle East, in this hell?”

I was used to this by now; sometimes it came later in the conversation and sometimes it was immediate, a reflex.  Why would anyone leave the comfort and ease of America to settle into a country plagued by war and prejudice?

Our laundry man (machines in Israel are more of a hassle than they’re worth thus laundry pick-up and drop-off services are commonplace) watched as our faces changed.

“But it’s Israel, you know?” Four American girls smiled back at him.

“Yes, I know,” he laughed, “And there’s nothing like it.”

What is it about Israel?

In a country where each day brings the possibility of real violence and persecution, the supermarket is about as tense as it gets in Tel Aviv.  Upon first glance, two Israelis seem to be arguing religion and politics near the pasta aisle; one throws his hands in the air, the saliva flying from his mouth as he shouts and points.  But alas, this interaction is a standard Israeli conversation–loud and passionate.

“Where can I find whole-wheat spaghetti?”

“I don’t think we have it! But what’s wrong with regular spaghetti?”

I am aware of the disconnect between my life in Israel and that of the native Israeli; I don’t have a relative in the army, I myself have not served in the army, and I don’t know a family member or a friend that has been killed defending Israel.  But even our laundry man, who expressed his initial astonishment at our plans to move here, understands the connection.  The country is hot, the people are loud, things tend to take longer than needed, and there is a constant fear below the surface; but the struggle is worth it.  So what is it about Israel?  I guess I’m still waiting for the words.

Tel Aviv

September 3, 2010

View of Tel Aviv from the walk to Jaffa.

I am writing from my apartment, 4 floors above Ben Yehuda, a centrally located street filled with boutiques, sushi bars, organic cafes, and the occasional falafel stand; all of this just two blocks from the sprawling Mediterranean beaches.  The past three days have been a combination of euphoria, disbelief, and an overwhelming desire to explore all of my surroundings.

It is nearly impossible not to feel at home; aside from a brief moment of stomach churning realization (I’m thousands of miles from home and can’t understand a word of Hebrew!), the city has already transitioned into a constant source of comfort and contentment in my mind.

Often times Israel and its people are compared to Sabra, a cactus fruit; it is spiky on the outside and contains a watermelon-like, sweet inside.  I have to disagree with this metaphor; sure, Israelis are a straightforward, no BS people.  But this exterior is hardly unpleasant and becomes immediately irrelevant in any one-on-one conversation.  On our first night in Tel Aviv, a waitress literally sat down and talked with us through our meal, leaving us her name and number in the hopes that she could help us adjust to the country and perhaps show us the best bars in town.  Since then we’ve met Israelis anywhere and everywhere, and each time they are beyond eager to hear about our program, our lives, and share in our experiences.  Here, a dinner invitation to one’s home is genuine and an offer to meet for coffee is a legitimate addition to one’s calendar.

I am surrounded by incredible scenery, unparalleled history, and generous people; I can’t imagine a better place to be spending the next five months (and maybe more!).