Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The High Holy Days

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 20 September 1999

This is the most solemn and contemplative time in the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah (literally, "head of the year") and Yom Kippur (also known as the Day of Atonement) are often referred to together as the High Holy Days, or the Days of Awe. Friends in America have asked me if Chanukah is the most important Jewish holiday, since it receives so much attention in America. Actually, Chanukah is considered a minor holiday; it has only become so widely known because of its proximity to Christmas.

As with all of the other Jewish holidays, the High Holidays (or Ha Hageem, as they are called in Hebrew - literally, "the holidays") are observed in Israel on a large scale. In the schools, children learn about the holidays, make crafts and sing songs relating to the holidays. The supermarkets offer special deals on all kinds of festive food items just before Rosh Hashanah. Cola bottles are adorned with specially decorated labels, wishing everyone a happy and healthy new year. Gift baskets of all kinds are available. It is customary here to exchange gifts at Rosh Hashanah (interestingly enough, it is not a common practice to exchange gifts at Chanukah. That custom is only recently gaining favor here). Companies provide their employees with gifts, from bonuses to baskets of gourmet honey (one of the traditional things to eat at the start of the Jewish new year is apple slices dipped in honey - to symbolize a sweet year).

In the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, people exchange the traditional holiday greetings and often seem to go out of their way to be friendly and kind. Anyone who has ever visited here knows that those two adjectives are rarely used to describe the average Israeli. It is almost as if a "holiday spirit" begins to pervade the air, and people become warmer and more considerate than is usual here.

Rosh Hashanah is celebrated by some by first going to synagogue for a special prayer service. It is almost universal here, however, to enjoy a festive family meal on the evening of the holiday (remember, Jewish holidays actually begin at sundown and last until one hour after sundown the next day. In Israel, the exception to this is Rosh Hashanah, which is observed for two days). In many Sephardic families (those whose ancestors were expelled from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition and who settled in many of the Arab countries) it is also common to hold a kind of seder, not unlike those held during Passover, but much shorter. My husband's family came to Israel from Yemen, and it is from them I learned of this practice. The Rosh Hashanah table is laden with many foods, from peaches to squash, fish to beets, and of course, apples and honey. The purpose is to sample and enjoy many fruits and vegetables (each with a symbolic meaning for the new year) for the first time of the new year, and to recite a special blessing over each one. In this way, we are reminded of the source of the bounty we enjoy.

Yom Kippur is by far the holiest day of the Jewish year. It is a time of contemplation, prayer, and fasting. Many people, even those who are considered secular (non-religious) attend Yom Kippur services in synagogue on the eve and day of the holiday. A majority of people also fast. Israeli radio and television stations fall silent. And virtually no one gets into a car. Our first year living here, we rented an apartment that overlooked a large boulevard and was not far from a major highway. We never noticed the sound of the traffic until Yom Kippur, when the noise became obvious by its total absence. The utter stillness of Yom Kippur in Israel is an almost eerie thing, so great is the contrast between that day and all the others.

One result of the absence of cars is the appearance of people, walking up and down in the middle of main streets. Last week the newspaper published a photograph taken by a foreign journalist living here. Last year, he rode his bicycle out onto the freeway that runs through Tel Aviv and took a picture. His photo of a ten speed bike posed in the center of a completely empty 4 lane freeway really brings home the fact that the whole country experiences, and is affected by, this most solemn of days.

(c) Amy Samin

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