SEPTEMBER 21, 2017 – Growing up in Portland, Maine, I have vivid recollections of the five-block walk to and from High Holy Day services at Temple Beth El. I remember the scraping sounds of the fancy black shoes against the uneven brick sidewalks lined with sprawling trees in early foliage as my family and I passed the neighborhood grocery store and pharmacy.
I frequented both establishments, the former for packages of Topps baseball cards with brittle blocks of bubblegum and the latter for chocolate egg creams at the soda fountain. But on these days, even though businesses were open we passed by, owing to the solemnity of Rosh Hashanah and a week later, Yom Kippur.
The holidays had a different feel to them. Most of my friends were in school and I wasn’t, the weather was changing and overcoats were sometimes required, and I felt out of place in my uncomfortable suit and tie walking on those same paths I usually rode on my Stingray bike. But I knew it was a necessity. For the Jewish community, Rosh Hashanah was like the Super Bowl, the highlight of the year.
I recall those days now some 30 years after moving to Israel, first in Jerusalem for over a decade and then 10 miles away in the bedroom community of Ma’aleh Adumim.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in Israel couldn’t be more different than my former New England home.
First of all, forget about dressing up. Although your average shul-goer tends to spruce up for Rosh Hashanah, the biggest concession many men make is that the untucked shirt they don for services is white.
Foliage and overcoats? Forget it. The two-season Israeli landscape hasn’t switched over yet, so more often than not, there’s 80- to 85-degree heat and a scorching sun to contend with and the only variation in colors is green and brown.
But the real difference between Israel and the US on Rosh Hashanah is actually a similarity. The vast majority of Israelis, like the vast majority of Americans, don’t observe the holiday. Aside from the enforced elements of not being able to run to the supermarket or to their favorite restaurant, which are closed for the holiday, Rosh Hashanah is a very long weekend (this year from Wednesday to Sunday) for most Israelis.
Just as friends who are a school-teaching couple in New York are taking off for Boulder over Rosh Hashanah, friends in Israel are bee-tailing to Cyprus for a mini-holiday. For those that stay in Israel, it’s also four days of leisure, not of introspective soul-searching and observance.
Jerusalem resident Rabbi Reuven Hammer, former president of the International Rabbinic Assembly and author of several books on religion, recently wrote about the irony of Rosh Hashanah – which is so central to Jewish life in the Diaspora – being treated so casually in Israel.
Rosh Hashanah “deals only with spiritual issues like sin and repentance and is the holiday least connected with Jewish history, agriculture, and the land of Israel,” he wrote.
“Rosh Hashanah lacks colorful symbols like the sukkah or the lighting of the hannukia and has none of the fun of Purim, so who needs it?” he facetiously added, before going on to explain how even secular Israelis could sign on to the messages of self- improvement and responsibility that are central to the observance.
Yom Kippur is another story. Really the national holiday of Israel, the Day of Atonement is the one time when the entire nation – religious, secular, Jewish, Arab, Haredi, Reform, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Left and Right – observe the same set of rules, whether they want to or not. The roads are closed, the stores are shuttered, and if you’re not in shul or within walking distance of the beach or a park, chances are you’re one of the thousands of adults and children riding on bikes down the middle of freeways usually jammed with cars.
But unlike that nationally sanctioned day of rest, which oddly the non-observers who make up the great bulk of the population accept and probably secretly appreciate, Rosh Hashanah remains largely a fringe holiday in Israel, marked mainly by family gatherings for dinner and traffic jams to and from said feasts.
But like I did decades ago in Portland, I still attend services on at least one of the days of Rosh Hashanah. And just like back then, I still feel a little out of synch, heading to my Conservative synagogue in Jerusalem, while a good part of the country is heading off to picnics, the beach, or hanging at home with a good movie or mini-series. Except now, I’m dressed comfortably in short sleeves and sandals.
David Brinn writes from Jerusalem.