In Israel For The Jewish Holidays

Sometimes the best (and most enjoyable) way to explore a new country and its culture is to go through a big festival, holiday or celebration.  I experienced Tet in Hanoi, Vietnam; Holi in Jaipur, India; La Tomatina in Valencia, Spain; Barcelona’s Merce Festival and most recently the Jewish Holiday Season in Tel Aviv.

What an unbelievable experience starting with Rosh Hashana (a combination of Christmas and New Year complete with gift giving… and receiving!).  I went to Ashkelon with my friend Avraham to celebrate with his family, Sephardic Jews from Morocco, so the celebration and the food represented the holiday differently than that celebrated by Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe.  The food that his sisters prepared made for one of the best feasts I have ever attended. And it was a feast… that seemed never ending… I thought I was going to explode I ate so much.   It was nice to sit with the family after dinner, relax, and sing folk songs (the only one I knew from start to finish was ‘Hava Nagila’ which we sang at the top of our lungs).  I also met Avraham’s 89 year old father who came for dinner and made for some good family laughs.  He kept asking me my name, if I spoke French (luckily a little more French than Hebrew) and if I was a soldier.  Everyone would laugh each time he would ask me the same questions, as if he suddenly just saw me sitting there.

The next day we gathered at the home of another of Avraham’s sisters for a backyard barbecue.  This time it was more informal with everyone sitting around the backyard chatting and relaxing.  But again the amount of food was unbelievable, especially after the feast we all ate the night before. Not only were there even more salads, there was also the meat course (and it is bad manners not to try everything) so again I was stuffed.  The Rosh Hoshana barbecue seems to be a tradition across Israel with several bbqs going all through the neighbourhood.  People kept stopping by to wish everyone ‘Shana Tova’ (Happy New Year).

We had a few days to recover from that before Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement and a much more solemn day.  Jews spend 25 hours from sunset to sunset reflecting on all the things they regret from the past year, apologizing and making amends with others.  Many people fast for the 25 hours and don’t do anything that would require technology or someone to have to work.  So that means no bathing or washing, no phones, lights, local TV broadcasts, no cars, buses or taxis… even airports shut down.  Luckily the street lights are still on so people flood out of their homes for a stroll up the streets, once the domain of the motorist, for this one day the only thing on wheels in the streets are bicycles, roller skates, skateboards and baby strollers.   Even Muslims and Christians living in Israel observe the auto ban, even though there are no laws banning road travel.  It’s actually very eerie as this bustling city comes to a stop.  It is so quiet and peaceful to not hear the roar of vehicles, honking horns, blasting music… every city and country should consider one day a year to just shut down.

Yom Kippur is also a time to repay debts, complete unfinished business and ask others for forgiveness.  People also wear white to symbolize purity.

The fasting actually wasn’t as bad as I expected.  People wish you ‘Tsom Kal’ (an easy fast).  It’s also considered bad form to eat in public if you are not fasting, and most people (Christians and Muslims included) don’t cook anything that might make it more difficult for those trying not to eat.  We saw one trio on the beach boardwalk having their dinner, obviously tourists who didn’t quite understand the customs of Yom Kippur. When the fast is over everyone usually eats some dried fruit like Dates and nuts, they seem to give you back your energy and gets the body working again.

Beware if you travel to Israel during the holidays since most businesses close for four days over Rosh Hashana; everything completely shuts down a few hours before Yom Kippur begins including restaurants, even those in most hotels.

Just a few days after Yom Kippur is Sukkot, that last another 7 days.  It has similiarities to Thanksgiving, agricultural in nature, giving thanks for a successful harvest.  It’s also when Jews build their Sukkah, basically a hut with a thatched roof where meals are eaten and shared through the week, some sleep inside the Sukkah as well (I remember seeing one set up outside Toronto’s old city hall but didn’t really understand what it was all about and in Brooklyn some people build a Sukkah on their balcony!).  Luckily though not everything shuts down, though it is still considered 7 days of holiday so don’t be surprised if what you are looking for is closed… be prepared and plan ahead.

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