The Holiest Day in the Holiest City

The best part about this time of year is that when Yom Kippur ends you know you have an entire year until you have to go 25 hours without food or water again. Unless of course you are “super relig” (the new lingo everyone says here) and fast for the other three holidays as well.

On Friday morning we left Ashqelon and headed to Jerusalem for a day of education seminars. Somehow I ended up going to bed around 2:00 a.m., and at that time I turned to my roommate and said “Ellen, I think it’s time for us to go to bed.” So we shut our computers down and slept for about four hours. It was ok that I didn’t get much sleep though because this weekend consisted of so much sleep that I didn’t even know I was capable of.

When we arrived in Jerusalem Ariel and I first asked the most important question, “Where’s the coffee?!” I was really craving a skinny hazelnut latte from Starbucks but since Starbucks wasn’t a success in Israel I am going to have wait a bit longer to fulfill that craving. Anyway, three cups of coffee later I landed myself in my first class entitled “Torah Yoga.” It was taught by a woman that is a bit of a Yogi — she meditates for three hours a day. She was one of the first people to incorporate the spiritualness of the Torah into the Yoga practice. The coolest example I can give is at the end of the class instead of turning to one another and saying “Namaste” we shut our eyes and said “Shalom” four times. Do you know in Yoga how you breathe out the long “ommmmm”? Well we did that but said the “Shal” before it. I couldn’t believe the connection! The teacher said there are a lot of coincidences with Torah scripture and Yoga scripture. She actually has put together a program of teachers in the United States as well, so depending on where I live when I get back home I may look more into that. It was a great class, I felt so relaxed after and like I had given my body a good stretch. It did however make me miss my mom and our yoga classes together.

After class we had brunch, which consisted of more coffee for me, and then we went to our second education seminar. The Rabbi who spoke to us this past Monday on the topic of Charity vs. Justice led this one. This seminar was about Alcoholics Anonymous and the religion behind the twelve-step program (a lot of usage of G-d) verse the program SMART that uses science to help people recover. It was very interesting, and I actually had no idea how often words like ‘G-d’ and ‘higher power’ are used in the twelve steps. Unfortunately I disagreed with a lot of the people in my group per what they had to say about both of the programs. I think many of their opinions stemmed from how they THEMSELVES would feel if they were in AA. I also don’t think many of them know much about it past what they may have seen on television or in movies. I got a little bit of my two cents in, but not nearly as much as I would have liked.

The third education seminar was about Israelis definition of secular verse the American definition. And also just how many Israelis are secular or view themselves as secular. This discussion I found to be the most interesting of the day. 51% of Israelis define themselves as secular, and only 9% define themselves as ultra-Orthodox. Another interesting statistic I found was that 48% of Israelis consider themselves ‘somewhat observant’ when rating their level of religious observance. There was also a poll taken of what is considered to be religious and secular. The great thing about Judaism is that it is just as much a culture as it is a religion. So while some people may have never even had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah yet they may still incorporate a lot of Jewish traditions into their lifestyle. In Israel 98% of Israeli Jews have a mezuzah on the front door of their home. To keep with the theme of this entry, 67% fast on Yom Kippur.

All in all, I thought the education seminars were fantastic. I am very much looking forward to continuing to be a part of them. The only two downfalls were that I found them to be about 30 minutes too short. Also two were held at the same time and you had to pick which one you wanted to go to. This is nice in the sense that it breaks the group up and I think smaller groups make for better discussion. However, there were times I was interested in both classes and unfortunately could only attend one of them.

After the seminars we were given our room keys and picked our roommates. Ariel, Tracy and I headed up to our room and gasped with excitement when we walked in. There were BEDS with fluffy white comforters and down pillows. I saw a TV for the first time since I’ve been here. In the bathroom there were hand towels and the shower was immaculate to say the least. I had no idea how much I missed these things that seemed so miniscule to me back home in the US. But boy did I miss them. We hung out for a little in the room and then headed downstairs for our last meal before the fast. Afterwards Ariel and I made our way to the Great Synagogue. We were a bit lost when we were walking there and fortunately we met a woman who was going there and a lady was nice enough to not only show us the way but she had a reserved seat with two open ones next to her that we got to sit in. The Great Synagogue was quite interesting. There was a world-renowned cantor and choir singing Kol Nidre which is a very pretty service. But to me the service was more like a show and it was hard for me to connect to it. It also didn’t help that it was entirely in Hebrew and I didn’t have a book to follow. I am glad I went to see what it was all about, but I won’t mind if I never go there again. The synagogue itself was absolutely beautiful. To give you an idea – Benjamin Netanyahu goes there often to pray and the service was broadcasted around the world.

After services we walked to Emek Refaim Street where everyone was walking around. In Israel the entire state shuts down and no one works, no cars are driven, no restaurants or coffee shops or open, you get the picture. This isn’t by law – but simply that Yom Kippur is the holiest holiday of the year in the Jewish Religion and even those that are not religious are keen on somehow celebrating it. The children especially love the holiday because since there are no cars they can roam free on the streets in their rollerblades or on their bikes. Everyone tends to wear white and they cover the streets all throughout the 25 hours of the holiday. It was quite surreal, seeing all of these people celebrating Yom Kippur and actually enjoying it. After we roamed a bit we made our way back to our hotel for the best sleep of our lives since being here in Israel. I slept for 12 straight hours!

Another cool fact I learned is that environmentalists love coming to Israel on Yom Kippur to test the air. Since nothing is being used it as pure as it can be in this day and age.

Once we woke up we made our way to a synagogue that is “Conservadox” and felt more like home for Ariel and I. It was a great service and everyone was very into the prayers, singing cheerily and clapping. We were actually able to get prayer books to follow along in, although it was all in Hebrew so it was a bit harder than usual, but great practice for reading the words none the less. Towards the end a woman came up to us and offered us her seats which was wonderful. Standing for a few hours when you have had no food or liquids isn’t the easiest thing in the world. After the service ended we walked back to the hotel quite dehydrated and exhausted. It would have been nice to walk around but with the heat in Israel and lack of food and water I didn’t foresee it having a good outcome. We ended up taking a nap that we hadn’t anticipated to be so long – about 4 hours! I have to say this fast wasn’t too hard to do this year given how much I slept. I suppose the trick to having an easy fast is to not really sleep at all for about 3 weeks before. Then you can just be like a bear and go into hibernation mode for the next 25 hours.

We broke the fast at the hotel and the food was really good which was a relief. There was a tour group of Indonesians at our hotel who decided it’d be a good idea to visit Israel on Yom Kippur. While I am impressed, they were taking over the food line and it was a tad frustrating for us who had fasted while they hadn’t. Even still, it was a nice break fast.

Afterwards we made our way back to Ashqelon and I went out to a bar here for the first time. It was a lot of fun and I am for sure looking forward for other nights out. The music (more house/electronic-style) Israelis play at their bars are much better in America (in my opinion). Better dance parties! Anyway, I was a bit tired for my Ulpan class this morning but it was well worth it. Today is the first time yet that I have nothing to do for the rest of the night except study. I am going to go for a run later and then get a nice cappuccino at a restaurant down the road from our absorption center and study there as well. It should be a very good day and night.

I’m going to end this long entry with a quote from one of the handouts for our education seminar:

“This is what I have learned from my own life experiences and this is my personal will: Life is bad, but always secret … Death is bad. The world is conflicted, but also diverse, and sometimes beautiful. The world is miserable, but can also be wonderful. The human condition is one of misery but it exists and can also be wonderful. The nation of Israel, by the rules of logic, has no future. One must, nonetheless, work. So long as you have a soul, there are sublime acts and uplifting moments. Long live Hebrew human labor!”

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4 thoughts on “The Holiest Day in the Holiest City

  1. I’m reading this on a beautiful morning in lee watching nathan play football and when I look at the mountains of the berkshires I feel so fortunate to live here – and feel so happy for you that you get to experience all you have so far. The yoga class sounds outstanding (shalooooom – so unbelievable!) I miss you too when I’m at yoga but look forward to classes together next year. Your fast sounded manageable and the best part – catching up on your sleep – yeah! I’m surprised 33% of the citizens don’t fast. I find it rewarding that 1) I can do it and 2) it makes you think about and feel closer to g-d. We missed you being with us at the holidays this year but love that you could celebrate them in our homeland and experience what the differences are between israel and america. These comments are long so I’ll end now but so glad all went so well and was so rewarding. Love you! Mom

  2. Great line about the best way to make it through a fast is by not sleeping for 3 weeks. I laughed out loud at my desk!

    I wasn’t able to celebrate Yom Kippur this year because one of our friends got married this weekend and Megan and I had to help set up the entire wedding hall as they had a “do it yourself” wedding. So, although I felt bad that I wasn’t celebrating Yom Kippur, I felt okay about it because I was performing a Mitvah in its place by helping a friend in need!

    Keep on enjoying your time and taking in all the experiences you have. Love you!

    -Mark

  3. Wow! This was a hard fast for me. Not sure why, but I got hungry early and a real bad headache! But I stayed with it. Grandma and Poppi came to “break fast” with Uncle Lenny, Becca and me. It was a nice quiet evening. Your experiences are amazing…..the classes sound so inspirational. We love you. Love, Aunt Julie

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