On yer bike, it's time to atone

By Benji Lovitt, September 21, 2012

As someone who falls somewhere between the Israeli labels of secular and traditional, my US Jewish roots are steeped in synagogue attendance. Growing up in America, I had to attend shul to be an affiliated Jew, especially on the High Holy Days. Chanting prayers in a language that I didn't understand, I may not have loved it but that's the way it was.

Years later, I made aliyah to Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur is incredible. As the city's energy slows to a crawl on Kol Nidre, cars are replaced by bikes and pedestrians until not a single moving vehicle remains in sight. By the time shul services have finished, the streets are packed with people, especially children of all ages who take over every available metre of the road.

I believe that if you feel Shabbat in Jerusalem 10 times more intensely than you do in Tel Aviv (that is, you feel the contrast between Shabbat and the weekdays), then you feel Yom Kippur 100 times more in Tel Aviv (my numbers are rough mathematical estimates).

In Israel, very few things are solely religious

While the Jerusalem streets feel like a ghost town on Yom Kippur, it's not so different from any other Shabbat. Tel Aviv on the Day of Atonement is a sight to behold that comes round only once a year. But every Yom Kippur, as I walk around the city in awe, I can't help wondering: what does spending the day riding bikes have to do with the actual meaning of Yom Kippur? To take it to the absurd, if everyone were to start eating sushi and having hula-hoop contests on Shavuot, while it might be really fun, would it add to or take away from the festival itself?

A friend once told me that "people celebrate it in their own ways and it's nice for so many people to do something together". Many (most?) of these bike-riders and outdoor types aren't repenting, apologising to others, or thinking about what they want to do differently in the coming year.

My perspective is surely rooted in Jewish guilt about what we should be doing. I don't want to judge or look down on non-religious observance (especially as, well, I'm not the most religious guy around and to each, his own) but let's just say it wasn't riding bikes that ensured our survival over thousands of years. If, God forbid, there is not an Israel tomorrow (or more realistically, if Israelis simply move abroad), how will we pass on our heritage to the next generation? Every demographic study shows our numbers in decline. Those of us in Israel may have the luxury of not worrying about these things like our counterparts in the diaspora, but isn't it important to pass on something besides "it's Yom Kippur, grab your helmet"?

But here's what my friend was trying to get across. I'm not in the diaspora. Whereas the Jewish identity I grew up with was defined by religious observance, I'm now living as part of the Jewish nation in a way that I never could do outside of Israel. I grew up with Yom Kippur as a religious commemoration.

In Israel, very few things are solely religious. When Israel liberated the Western Wall in 1967, it wasn't only a religious moment. It was a national victory after 2000 years of exile. I like that I live in a country where my Jewish identity is defined not only by religious observance but also by culture, language, community, and so much more.

Could Israeli society be a little more well-versed in our history, texts, and religion? Sure. Is the broad spectrum of religious observance a natural, expected, and overall meaningful thing in a Jewish state? Definitely.

Now, when I walk down Tel Aviv's highway, amazed by its rare emptiness, I try to let it enhance my spiritual and religious experience, not detract from it. As for others? I guess it's up them to figure it out.

Benji Lovitt is a comedian living in Israel. He blogs on www.benjilovitt.com

    Last updated: 2:28pm, September 21 2012