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Survey of the month

Yom Kippur as Bicycle Day

Yom Kippur as Bicycle Day
09.19.2007
On Sunday morning September 23, I will open my newspaper and see the traditional day-after Yom Kippur picture: one of Israel's busiest highways completely deserted during the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.  Indeed, among the secular Israeli public, Yom Kippur is often thought of as "Bicycle Day," since the absence of cars makes every street in Israel safe for bicycles.  Ever alert to the threat of religious coercion, some secular Israelis are unhappy with this status quo.  They feel that the voluntary abstention from automotive transportation (a Yom Kippur tradition kept far more than the one that prohibits eating) is deleterious to a free and democratic society.  For example David Volach, the director of "My Father My Lord" (which won an award at a recent film festival in New York) and the subject of Haaretz Magazine’s  August 24 cover story, is quoted as saying: "I make a point of driving in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur. . . .  It is not a right, it is an obligation.  I can respect Yom Kippur more than anyone else.  But in Israel it is very grave that on Yom Kippur everyone becomes ultra-orthodox.  That all-of-us scares me very much." 
I wonder: How many secular Americans feel that it is their civic duty to get up on the morning of December 25 and go to work?  I have many non-Jewish American friends and acquaintances, but not one of them is bothered by the fact that on a day whose significance resides solely in its being holy to Christians, all businesses are closed, let alone all government offices—this in a country where there is full separation of religion and state.  Why should the public observance of Jewish holidays in Israel give secular Jews the creeps whereas the public observance of a Christian holiday in America is completely acceptable to secular Americans?  Here is one theory: 2,000 years of Jewish life within non-Jewish cultures fostered a feeling of the "otherness" of Judaism—a feeling that could not be wiped out in one fell swoop with the founding of the state in 1948.  Life among the gentiles created a powerful sense that something is not quite right about being Jewish, that there is such a thing as "too Jewish."  This sense was so powerful that its residual effects can sometimes be felt today in Israel even by a person who grew up ultra-orthodox (as Volach did), causing him to feel unnerved by the absence of cars on Tel Aviv's streets on Yom Kippur.  How many lapsed American Catholics are unnerved by the fact that their post office is closed on Christmas? 
In general, the complete ignorance by ostensibly intelligent secular Israelis of the human need for community, symbol, and ritual—to which religion offers one possible response—is astonishing.  I have seen many displays of this ignorance in the decade that I have lived here, but the absolute low point came on Friday August 10 in a front-page article in Ha'aretz, Israel's most serious and intellectually respected newspaper.  This article, with apparently high news value given its prominent place on the top right portion of the front page, consisted of the following scoop: the ultra orthodox are visiting Jerusalem's zoo in large numbers.  Since I was absolutely transfixed by this story, I turned to page 2 for its continuation, and there the writer lets loose his second incredible scoop: ultra-orthodox parents seem to be as fascinated with the zoo animals as do their children.  Then, in watching an ultra-orthodox man looking at a chimpanzee, the writer observes that the man is totally unaware of the fact that the chimp has three times the freedom that the man does.  As perhaps proof of this remark, the writer goes on to say that the chimp does not have to say a blessing every time he eats something. 
I see this article on the same thought continuum as Volach believing that it is his civic duty to drive on Yom Kippur:  Judaism is for masochistic, stupid people; consequently, expressions of Jewish religious observance and contact with religiously observant people are repugnant.  One does not even know where to begin to try to correct these basic mistakes about the function of religion in human life.  But if/when you are in synagogue this Yom Kippur, please pray for all those Jews who feel that what you are doing is some kind of anachronistic, primitive, tribal superstition.  Hatima Tova—May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Copyright 2007, Teddy Weinberger