Imagine your city, town or village without traffic, with all the stores closed. No buses, trains or even planes overhead. No open 24hr corner shop, no open petrol station. Just quiet.
Welcome to Yom Kippur in Israel. A 24 hour period from sunset until sunset the following day when the whole country falls silent. Oh apart from the bike bells, the odd ambulance, the shouts of children as they race down the traffic free roads and invariably crash into each other, the calls for dogs that, left off their leads are prowling the bins in the neighbours’ gardens and running wild in a frenzy of new-found freedom. It’s now my 10th Yom Kippur I think so I am not as amazed as I was on the first year. I remember it well. We were pre-childers but had our lovely dog still and we walked down the 4 lane highway through the centre of Tel Aviv with the dog off the lead and no other people save from a few cyclists. We had walked down to the beach in the morning and revelled in the quiet and the clean air (Tel Aviv is particularly bad with air pollution). It had been a revelation to see that it truly is possible to turn off ‘modern’ living, at least to a degree, for a day.
I soon discovered that for secular people Yom Kippur falls into certain routines, dependent on your situation. Single 20 somethings use the time to sleep, go for a walk and watch as many films as they can squash into one sitting. New parents use the quiet to sleep, one parent walks the baby for hours while the other rests and then they swap. Parents of young kids teach their kids to ride bikes, scooters, roller skates and after the novelty of the first evening wish that they too could sleep through the heat of the day and watch a movie that wasn’t animated. Parents of school age kids hang around with other parents whilst their kids race off on adventures with an emergency mobile phone in their backpacks and the promise of keeping in regular contact. The teenagers are out all day or inside with their computer games and the adults enjoy the quiet, read a book, go to synagogue, think. The day culminates (in my neighbourhood) with everyone appearing fresh-faced and smelling of shower gel, dressed in white shirts and either going to or standing outside the packed synagogue to hear the shofar being sounded. A crazy mix of religion and secularism which still takes me by surprise and yet warms my soul.
So what is Yom Kippur? (as always if you already know/are Jewish I apologise and look away now). Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement is the day in which Jewish people fast, confess and ask for forgiveness for their sins and misdemeanour’s from the previous year and for ones they may inadvertently commit in the new year. It falls 10 days after Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and traditionally is said to mark the day that Moses received the second part of the Ten Commandments from God. Unlike many of the Jewish fasts many secular Jews fast on this day – fasting is to concentrate your mind and soul on your atonement and not on earthly pleasures. Wearing white represents the purity of confession and in basic terms the rules are: no eating, drinking, bathing, sex, no use of lotions or perfumes, no wearing of leather shoes. As with all religion there are those who follow all the rules to the letter and others follow them to a degree. For example the riding of bicycles etc is of course forbidden so only the secular kids take to the streets on wheels.
Yom Kippur for me is obviously not religious at all. It is instead a day of quiet. When our family is together with no distraction from chores or outings, no television (although I confess to watching Peter Pan with the kids for the first time ever this year). Our Yom Kippur this year saw no.1 son gain enormous confidence both on his bike and from being set free on his scooter, no. 2 son learnt how to ride a bike (with stabilisers) and Princess daughter after a morning of bombing around on her push along bike retired to her throne on wheels (the stroller) in the afternoon so she could view her subjects from a reclined position. We all slept in the afternoon – what joy during the fiercest heat and humidity to be cool, fanned and sleeping. As the sun went down husband and the childers went to hear the last prayer and the blowing of the shofar in the makeshift synagogue that appeared in the neighbourhood to contend with the masses who couldn’t fit into the local synagogue.
So, when is she going to tell us what a shofar is? Well, its a ram’s horn that is blown on Yom Kippur to mark the end of the fasting after the last prayer. It’s also used throughout the year at other religious ceremonies, not least New Year when it is blown 100 times on 2 days (no easy feat as to get a sound out of the horn takes practise and a lot of puff.).
Imagine your town without TV and radios broadcasts, no alarms going, no phones ringing. Voices travelling down the street as there are no cars to drown them out. Imagine a day when you pull the puzzles and books down from the highest shelves and have time to sit on the floor with your kids and play, when you chat to your family or friends without interruption from pinging emails, phone calls or text messages. A day when you don’t cook (even if you don’t fast its not fair to have the waft of cooking smells spilling into the street), when you don’t dash out to get milk or petrol. When the pace of life slows and the juggling stops. Just for a day. And then it all starts again.