The one where Yom Kippur escaped from synagogue ...
The vibrant and pluralistic side of Israeli religious life that gets far too little press
I wasn’t planning on writing a piece this week. The Jewish calendar is jammed with holidays, and as we’ve noted on our schedule of columns, this week was going to be quiet, now due to the holiday of Sukkot, which begins in a few hours.
Sometimes, though, something happens—not massive, not technically newsworthy, but still enormously significant because it points to a dimension of the complex mosaic that is Israel, the complex mosaic that Israel from the Inside is devoted to exploring.
Someone who was in Tel Aviv over Yom Kippur sent me some photos and some video clips, which told a story. The story they tell, it seemed to me, so enriches our sense of the mosaic known as Israel that it merits a quick column even in the midst of all these holidays.
Neilah, “the locking of the gates,” is the final, closing chapter of the Yom Kippur liturgy, typically recited as the sun is beginning to set, as the fast day begins to wane. The photograph above is of a Neilah service this past Wednesday, in Dizengoff Square smack in the middle of Tel Aviv.
On the surface, the photograph does not seem particularly remarkable. Just a bunch of Jews outside, at Yom Kippur services.
But there’s actually much more to the story. The nucleus of the service, I’m told, is an Orthodox congregation nearby that purposely conducts both Kol Nidre (as Yom Kippur begins) and 24 hours later, Neilah (as Yom Kippur begins to end) outside. At the center of the crowd, not visible here, is an Orthodox congregation. Men and women are seated separately, and none of the cameras that you will see in the videos that follow are evident.
But as the circle widens (and note that there are chairs for everyone—the heterogeneous crowd is both expected and welcomed), there’s no separation between men and women. Some men have their heads covered, some do not. Some of the people are dressed modestly for worship, while others are not.
And that is the whole point. This rabbi and this congregation choose to be outside so that people who do not plan to spend all day at services, but who still want Yom Kippur to be part of their lives, can participate. Many Israelis do not feel comfortable going into a synagogue—but who can’t go to Dizengoff Square? This is a photograph of the Jewish people. Of a Jewish people in which no one is judging anyone else. In which no one minds what anyone else does. In which people simply make space for each other, so they can all be part of the most sacred day of the year.
Soon after that photo was taken, the sun had set further, and the service was concluding. The Yom Kippur service ends with the recitation of the Shema (once), and then “Blessed be the glory of God’s Kingdom forever” (three times), and then “the Lord is King” (seven times). That last phrase, in Hebrew, is a-do-nai hu-ha’elokim.
This next video, also sent to me by the same person, captures the recitation of that last phrase. Listen carefully and you can heard the thousands of people chanting a-do-nai hu-ha’elokim. And if you look carefully, you’ll see the bared heads, the people of all different walks of life, gathered together to worship, to participate, or simply to be present—to do precisely what it is that the Jewish state was meant to foster.
What’s the question we should be asking after seeing this photograph and the video? I think it is “what, exactly, does ‘secular’ even mean in a society like this?”
What should be clear to us is that this notion of “religious versus secular” in Israel captures little of the complexity and nuance of a much more interesting Israeli reality.
There are, to be sure, secular Jews in Israel. They were raised with little to no religious schooling, so know virtually nothing. Some are open to learning more, some are not. Some object as a matter of principle. Some flee from what they see as a medieval, misogynist, racist rabbinate.
But what these Yom Kippur scenes illustrate is that many, many of those who are not “religious” are also far from secular. They are non-observant, but not non-religious. They are Jews of all sorts of beliefs and backgrounds who disagree about politics and culture and almost everything else, still swaying together, chanting a-do-nai hu-ha’elokim, “the Lord is King”, still wanting to be part of an ancient tradition that in some ways, has come back to life in new and unexpected ways.
And then, a few seconds later, at the close of Yom Kippur, when the sun has finally set, comes the sounding of the Shofar. And here, once again, it’s the sounding of the shofar for thousands of Israelis: all colors, all backgrounds, all sorts of faith and those with no faith at all—all part of the Jewish people. All wanting to be part of this. All wanting to hear the sounding of the shofar, the shofar that Joshua sounded thousands of years ago when he surrounded Jericho, the shofar that the British outlawed at the Kotel while they had the Mandate, the shofar that has “awakened” Jews across the world (or, some would say, has awakened God to hear their prayers) for thousands of years.
There is, to be sure, religious intolerance aplenty in Israel, especially from the upper echelons. It’s there among the masses, too. But that part of the story is well known, and not really terribly interesting anymore. What is interesting and what is much less known is open embrace of many Jews of different sorts for each other. If you wanted to see it last week, all you had to do was to be in Dizengoff Square on Yom Kippur. Or at the Habima (national theatre next to Rothschild Blvd) and Kikar Atarim (next to Ben-Gurion Blvd next to the sea). All you had to do was to be at any one of a number of places, in Tel Aviv and beyond.
So that’s one way that Yom Kippur “escaped the synagogue.” But it’s hardly the only one, or even the most compelling. What happens when a French Jewish family moves to Israel with, among others, their eight-year-old son, becomes more religious, moves to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, has the son go off to the army, and he then attends a yeshiva specifically designed for Orthodox kids with musical talent?
What happens is that Yom Kippur takes over rock concerts, too, even when it’s not Yom Kippur.