Today was the fourth consecutive Yom Kippur we have spent in Tel Aviv. We arrived back in Israel three years ago just a few days before this holiday. This year, we had the pleasure of sharing the day with friends visiting from America. It took listening to their astonishment upon experiencing the observance of Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv to fully appreciate the remarkable way this overwhelmingly secular city marks Yom Kippur.
Last night, as the sun was setting and we were walking to synagogue, one could see the last of the cars racing to arrive at wherever they were going in time. By the time we emerged from Kol Nidre services, the streets of the city had been transformed. No longer were there moving cars to be seen ... no music blaring from apartment house windows ... No stores open. Just thousands of people walking the streets and riding their bicycles. The major thoroughfares of Tel Aviv that are usually packed with cars, were just filled with people milling around talking or riding their bicycles. To me, the most amazing sight was seeing very little kids aged 4 or 5 crossing the streets on their bicycles – without their parents hovering over them. Don’t worry! They were not alone. The parents were watching from the distance, but no one had to worry that their kids would be hurt by by the ongoing traffic (well, possibly by a fast moving bicycle). On Yom Kippur the streets of Tel Aviv are as safe as a Mamaroneck back yard. The streets were still busy late into the night. Later on, my daughter saw a group of Hasidim (yes, there is a small Hasidic community in Tel Aviv) sitting on a large white blanket in the middle of the road on King George Street.
This special mood continued throughout the next day. Wherever you went in Tel Aviv, all of the main streets (such as: Ibn G'virol, Dizengoff, Ben Yehuda and many more) were transformed into one big park – where it seemed that everyone in the city who was not in one of the 800 synagogues that dot the city, chose to congregate.
One of our guests asked me whether I thought that if there had been a separation between State and Religion here (something I support) if people's observance would be the same. I told her I believed it would make no difference. There is no law against driving. No policeman could not stop you if you did drive. In Tel Aviv, as in the rest of Israel, throughout Yom Kippur, not driving is just a societal norm that is accepted by all.
Tel Aviv is proud of its reputation as the secular capital of Israel – and an overwhelming majority of Tel Aviv residents define themselves as secular. However, for at least one day a year, almost all of them celebrate a distinctly religious holiday. Most of them do not observe in the traditional ways (although a very high percentage of people do fast), and for one day, everything in their regular lives stops. In honor of Yom Kippur, the city that never pauses comes to a full stop so that people can commemorate this day on the Jewish calendar – maybe not in the most traditional way, but in a way that is meaningful to all.