The American Colony – Israel shut down yesterday for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
On Yom Kippur, Jews ask God to forgive the sins they committed the year before and the sins they’ll commit in the year to come. As part of our contrition, we fast from sundown the night before Yom Kippur to nightfall the next day.
Aside from the fasting and soul-searching, Yom Kippur is known as the “Bicycle Holiday” in Israel. Since Israel literally puts up the shutters – TV and radio stations, stores, and roads all close – the country’s roads become a playground as children and adults cruise city streets and highways on their bikes. Some even bike the steep road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
No bicycles for me, though. Instead, I went to the holiest place for Jews in the world, the Western Wall. The Western Wall is the western outer retaining wall of the Second Temple’s compound. The Second Temple was built on the site of the first temple and on the hill that Abraham is believed to have offered his son Isaac to God for a sacrifice (God said, “no thank you). Today the Haram al Sharif, the compound that houses the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque, sits on the site of the Temple’s ruins.
The Western Wall, also called the Wailing Wall, is an interlocking puzzle of rectangular boulders mixed with tangled greens sprouting from spots in between. Hand written notes, detailing the hopes and pleas of Jewish pilgrims from all over the world, fill the cracks among the giant stones. In the plaza beneath the Western Wall, Jews have gathered to pray since the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 CE.
On Friday night, as the sun set, Jews dressed in white – a sign of purity – began to arrive at the Wall for prayer. Some ultra orthodox with long beards wore kittels, or white religious overshirts. In other cases, it looked like an army of milkmen was invading. Leather is a Yom Kippur no-no, so there were lots of canvas belts and gleaming white sneakers, out and about, enjoying an annual cameo. The big hit in Yom Kippur fashions this year though was white Crocs. Crocs are popular here and the full color wheel was on display, but a local shoe store definitely made a killing on white ones.
With the sound of the Ramadan cannon, which fires each evening to signify that it is time to break the fast, I descended to the men’s section of the Wall for prayer. The plaza had filled considerably, but not into one service. Instead, congregations gathered together in spots around the plaza. The sounds of staggered prayers, each at their own pace, echoed throughout the evening.
The crowd was diverse, not just by dress but by skin color and place of origin too. Besides the men in white, the plaza was filled with Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews wearing fedoras, black suits, and Windsor knotted ties. Some European Jews with shaved heads and long curly pa’ot sported yellow robes, while others wore black silk robes, fur hats the size of flying saucers, and white stockings pulled to their calves. For a while, I joined a Sephardic congregation, where I sat behind a guy who looked to be from India and two others who appeared to be from North Africa. To my left were two Ethiopians, about ten years older than me.
Interestingly, the prayer books were as diverse as the worshippers. As I searched for the right mahsor for Yom Kippur, I found a book of psalms with Arabic-Hebrew translation, a siddur with English commentary, and finally a Hebrew-Russian mahsor.
Fifteen feet from where I finally settled, the leader of a Carlebach-looking group – each member had an untamed beard – thrust his fist into the air repeatedly as he led Friday night prayers. A few feet away, thirty Sephardic men clustered around a rabbi with salt and pepper hair, big brown glasses, and a long grey beard. The rabbi leaned against a reader and delivered a sermon on the need to feed the soul, not just the body. He enunciated each word, competing with the singing of the smaller group to his right.
Directly in front of the wall, an assortment of lone individuals, from a blonde 20 year-old in shorts to a thin black guy wearing a black baseball hat, braced their palms against the smooth hand worn stones that are more than 2000 years old. Their lips, just inches away from pieces of history, mouthed silent and private prayer. Others, with prayer books opened, shucked and swayed in more formal devotion. I wondered how it would be if everyone was on the same page, chanting the same prayers at the same time.
Despite the cacophony of services, though, the night was magical. The wall was sprayed with light from tilted floodlights that cast spelling-binding shadows and induced a moment of spirituality outside of time.
The strangeness of a country collectively paused in reflection returned, however, when I exited the Old City via Dung Gate. The city’s walls were lit against the mostly quiet night. Outside of Zion Gate, a group of Spanish-speaking Christian pilgrims sang hymns. From Silwan, lit by Ramadan lights and crescent moon decorations, came the sounds of Palestinians celebrating the Ramadan break-fast. Other than that, the Jewish side of the Old City was still. The roads leading to the center of town were blocked with barriers.
The next morning, I returned to the Old City. It was a little after 7AM and Ramadan hangover was evident throughout East Jerusalem’s streets and the Damascus Gate area. Two empty falafel cauldrons stood at the top of the Damascus Gate stairs amid the previous night’s litter, and young boys were setting up lines of shoes for sale. In the Muslim Quarter, stores were beginning to open as shopkeepers put out sweets from the day before, hung articles of clothing outside their shops, and put on Koranic tapes.
At the Wall, morning services had begun, each congregation forming in what I realized were their respective spots. The Wall cast a shadow across the plaza and as the sun rose higher, the shadow receded. With the shrinking shadow, each congregation slid forward, pulling plastic white chairs and readers along. By 10AM, we were packed within 20 feet of the monumental stones. Most men were still praying but others sat in circles, listening to a Rabbi’s lesson. Above, in the shadows, birds darted back and forth between the cracks in the upper stones, nesting amid the holy weeds.
After services, I walked to the center of town. Saw-horses blocked the streets and Arab boys rode their bikes down King George and Jaffa Road – downtown Jerusalem’s main thoroughfares. Ben Yehuda Street, the usually crowded pedestrian mall off of Zion Square, was empty. The sounds of singing poured out of a nearby Yeshiva, but the stores were shut and the usual sounds of business were missing.
The only people downtown were Arab kids on bikes and foreign workers. The kids – mostly from the Christian Quarter – did tricks and jumps, and workers from South Asia and Thailand walked the streets casually, laughing. It was the Israeli version of the Saturday Night Live skit, “Christmas Time for the Jews” -- the claymation masterpiece where the Jews of New York celebrate Christmas eve and “control the night” playing professional basketball, driving tractors, and doing all other sorts of things that they never get to do as the city’s Christians celebrate at home.
So Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have come and gone; Sukkot is next and Ramadan continues. If you’re wondering how any work gets done amid days off, half days, fasting and the rest, you’re asking a good question. I’ll let you know in October, after my Columbus Day vacation.