In my previous life as an oleh wannabe, I remember getting a post from a blogger in Mevatseret Tzion, who writes under the moniker of “Stupillow.” He was describing the phenomenon of bike riding in his community on Yom Kippur.
Now you have to understand that on Yom Kippur, Israel is officially closed for business, meaning that Jews essentially don’t work, restaurants, shops, and movies are for one day shut tight. You can drive your car, but few people do. On your garden variety Shabbat here in Maale Adumim, there is considerable vehicular traffic – not as much as on a typical weekday, but still more than enough. On Rosh Hashana, there is a little bit less. On Yom Kippur, there is none, except for emergency and security vehicles. (In fact, except for the sounds of children playing, dogs barking, and cats fighting, it is absolutely quiet here for 25 hours.) And so what happens? For one day, the streets become a giant race track for bicycles, tricycles, scooters, skates, and skateboards. While their parents are praying, fasting, and reflecting, young children are zooming up and down hills, innocently oblivious to the solemnity of the occasion. No doubt, many of them in a few years will be beside their parents in shul, and thirty years from now, it will be part of the collective consciousness of an entire generation – perhaps like their experiences in the I.D.F.
But there is the guy in Tel Aviv whom I read about recently. He came from a HUGE hassidic family (something like 17 children!) and decided one day to chuck the whole thing and became militantly secular. He sees his mission in life as driving around Tel Aviv all day on Yom Kippur. (Our older daughter Tina, who lives there and was with us for THE ONE DAY of Sukkot, confirmed that there indeed only one car that she could see driving around in her neighborhood the entire day. I wonder if it was the same guy.) Poor fellow. He doesn’t understand that he too is part of the shana, the collective calendar of the nation. You see, you don’t have to do the same thing to be part of the same year. He’s not driving around because, let’s say, it’s Thursday, and every Thursday he goes to see his personal trainer. He’s driving around Tel Aviv because it’s Yom Kippur! I’m in shul, standing and praying. He’s sitting in the car, driving and anti-praying, but in Eretz Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael, it is still Yom Kippur.
If he wants to escape from the collective shana, he only has to come to America. Now, it’s part of our belief system that the entire world is being judged on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but, except for small pockets scattered throughout the land, you’d never know it from empirical observation in the great 48. Here a Jew is absolutely free to ignore the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – if he so chooses. And many do.
I grew up in one of those small pockets where there was a communal sense of the High Holidays, an area in the north Bronx around Moshulu Parkway. Not only was the area heavily Jewish, but insofar as most of the gentile kids went to St. Brendan’s RC school not P.S. 80 where we all went, it seemed to us kids growing up that everybody was Jewish. Now it’s a well known fact that my parents were not especially religious (this is an example of literary understatement), but my father did take off from work on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. As we had nothing else to do, we would take long walks through adjacent neighborhoods on those afternoons. But my parents were punctilious that we should do nothing in public that would seem out of place on those Holidays, because they understood that they were part of a community. I always knew that Sukkot was right around the corner, because it was – literally. From the rear of our full floor apartment, we could see the backyard of the Young Israel of Moshulu Parkway (the original building) where, of course, they put up a sukkah. But even without this graphic reminder, and that’s all it was because I had no idea what the sukkah was supposed to be, I would know. For there were four days in the fall that were classified “Jewish Holidays,” when nobody (except for the teachers and the handful of kids who were gentiles) went to school. I should mention that unwritten but clearly understood rule: don’t play in the school yard on a Jewish Holiday. We may not have been that religious, but we were not stupid!
I’m sure that some of my classmates did go to “services” at least on The High Holidays in the few Orthodox and Conservative synagogues in the neighborhood, and probably some of them came from homes in which there was some semblance of observance, but, honestly, G-d didn’t have a fighting chance in the north Bronx around Moshulu Parkway when Harry Truman or Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the U.S., and when there were probably as many Jews in The Bronx as in The Land. Everyone I knew grew up and moved away from our neighborhood, and we all left the shana behind. Probably fifty percent of the kids in my neighborhood who joyfully and collectively took off from public school on the “Jewish Holidays,” meaning the first and last two days of Sukkot, wound up with spouses who had a very different calendar.
It’s no secret that in The States, The Big Days are not in the little known month of Tishrei, but in the well known month of December, and those days are hard to ignore. A lot of us do things on Dec. 25 to go with the flow, like going to the movies and “eating Chinese.” When I worked for the OU, a different approach was taken: pretending that the day didn’t exist. The office was always open on December 25 – even though public transportation was spotty at best. So, just as our secularist would be driving around Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur, I would be driving around New York on Xmas! Talk about symmetry.