A Eulogy for Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv

Secular and religious Tel Avivians do not have to be enemies. We could, in fact, lead the way in showing the rest of the country that coexistence is possible.
September 27, 2023
People ride there bicycles in the middle of the empty streets of Tel Aviv during Yom Kippur on October 04, 2014 (Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

Those who believe that Yom Kippur is a somber, arduous day are those who have never experienced the magic of Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv.

Yes, it is the holiest day of the Jewish year—a day of repentance and self-examination, but it is also a day of freedom from commerce, capitalism and traffic—a day when the air clears and we are allowed to experience the urban fabric not as consumers or worker bees, but as human beings.

In the decade since I moved to Tel Aviv from the US, I have experienced Yom Kippur in many different ways. There have been years when I fasted and years when I did not. There were years I spent in synagogue and years I spent at home, years spent beating my chest and years spent riding my bike.

In the United States, observing Yom Kippur means making a choice—or a set of choices. In Tel Aviv, the holiday descends upon the city like weather. The world stops. The cars disappear. The grates of the storefronts slam shut. The voices of children are heard as they pedal their bikes furiously around corners.

Israel is a divided country—there’s no debating this. We are often guilty of hating one another. Even more so, we can fear one another. But there are a few moments each year when one sees what works about this place. In Tel Aviv, Yom Kippur is one of those moments, because it is sacred for everyone—but to each in their own way.

Perhaps it seemed too good to be true, but I always suspected that someday—when I was much older—Tel Aviv’s Yom Kippur would be just a memory. The  closure of the city, the absence of cars, the urban serenity—it all requires a kind of stable social contract that just seems hard to preserve. Somehow, especially in this year of protests, it seemed to already belong to the past—like stories of the good old days when no one locked their doors and everyone knew their neighbors.

It seems that someday has arrived. Sunday, on the evening of Yom Kippur, an Orthodox Kol Nidre service was disrupted and literally shut down by protesters. Why? Ostensibly because the service had a mechitza—a separation—between the men’s and women’s section in accordance with Orthodox tradition.

There are several ways one can frame this incident. Some saw it as a simple matter of law and order. The Municipality had not—as it had in the past—granted permission for this “sex segregated” prayer service. The worshippers were therefore breaking the rules, and the protesters were just enforcing them.

Alas, this was not their role. But if one were inclined to defend the protesters, one could say that their vigilantism was motivated by a somewhat noble ideal: they believed that they were safeguarding Tel Aviv’s culture.

One could also say—as some commentators have argued—that the Kol Nidre service was not merely an innocent prayer gathering, but a deliberate provocation by a group with a religious agenda.

This may well be the case, but the response was hardly proportional and cannot be explained away so easily. This is bigger than one gathering and has to do with the growing consensus in the anti-government protest movement that Tel Aviv must remain a stronghold against religion. Also, because the extremist coalition behind the judicial overhaul is dominated by the fervently religious, this has made the protest movement especially sensitive and easily triggered by anything “religious.”

But Tel Aviv’s culture isn’t threatened by religious people. Judicial overhaul or not, religious people are part of Tel Aviv. Secular and religious Tel Avivians do not have to be enemies. We could, in fact, lead the way in showing the rest of the country that coexistence is possible. We could also work as partners in fighting the real threats to Tel Aviv’s culture, namely skyrocketing cost of living, stagnant leadership, traffic, infestations and menacing Wolt drivers.

Secular or religious, Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv is an utterly singular day, a day which exists nowhere else in the world but here. I want to call it sacred, but we needn’t make recourse to religious concepts. Sacred or profane, it doesn’t matter. Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv is a rare, precious, and unlikely phenomenon.

To destroy its special atmosphere with animosity and aggression therefore takes a kind of recklessness—a failure to see the good because one is utterly consumed with a perpetual, zero-sum fight against the other.

Yes, I always knew it would happen someday. I just thought we had more time.

Matthew Schultz is a writer and rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (Tupelo, 2020) and lives between Boston and Jerusalem. 

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