As we approach our first “normal” week without a mid-week holiday interruption – and I invite you to define normal – I want to share some observations from the past few weeks.
When I worked full-time, the holiday period was often frustrating. It’s hard to get anything done. I couldn’t call people or meet with people. It was the start of the year, but it was stop-start in terms of work. While I enjoyed the holidays themselves, there was always an irritating overlay. There were two days off every other week and then there were short work-days on the actual evening of the holiday. For a month, it seemed like everything was upside down. I can appreciate that in the days of the ancient Temple when people came for a lengthy pilgrimage to Jerusalem, it worked, but today, it’s hard.
I know this is a challenge for many people. I am not alone.
But this year, transitioning from running a large organization to being my own boss and only working on projects that I choose and like, I had a very different set of holidays. I did not have a staff who were relying on me for direction or board I needed to report to so I felt greater ownership of my time and it was easier to stop time as well.
Most Yom Kippur days in the past 25 years, I’ve spoken at a synagogue. I would often teach in the late afternoon tying together concerns in the Jewish world with a sense of our personal and collective responsibility on this holiest of days. I talked about the needy. I talked about Jonah. I talked about peoplehood. But this year, I spent my first Yom Kippur in Israel and, of all places, in a friend’s house in Herzliyah Pituach. You think I would have been in Jerusalem, shedding a tear or two at the Kotel. But this experience was, in some ways, even more profound for me.
In spite of having been to Israel literally hundreds of times – and more often than monthly in the last five years – I had never been there for Yom Kippur. I had no idea that it’s a festival of bicycles. Everywhere you turn there are people of all ages on bicycles. There is no driving at all, anywhere. Everything is closed. I contrasted this to my days in Manhattan where everything seems open all the time, 24/7, 365 days a year. Yom Kippur in Israel was not simply a religious holiday. It was a day unlike any other. I was too hot to bike, but I was happy to observe. Being in Israel is fundamentally different. Being Jewish in Israel is fundamentally different.
Fasting on Yom Kippur was the very first thing I did as a Jew at thirteen. In Russia, this was something you can do privately and no one would know. You can go to school or work and no one would guess you were observing a holy day. For this very reason, it was a more common observance in Russia that the Passover Seder, which is the number one ritual in North America.
In the United States, it is the day that more Jews appear in synagogues than any other, and in Israel it’s the day were more people get bicycle injuries than any other. I was struck by how profoundly different Yom Kippur has become for different Jews in different places. I am not making a judgment of what has more meaning – a one-day a year Jew in synagogue or a citizen of Israel who sees the day as a time for family and friends.
This contrast forces me to go back to my ongoing concern of how focused we’ve become on how different we are from each other and how little we pay attention to what we have in common. This example is no different. It was striking that the entire country – religious or not – was doing something different than they would normally do. Yet the divide between the nature of these different Yom Kippur activities is profoundly at odds and does not easily lend itself to finding a common space under the umbrella of peoplehood.
I am amazed by the fact that the entire country has a law that prevents certain kinds of activity on this day, but people interpret it in different ways. There are those in the rabbinate who liken riding bicycles on Yom Kippur to eating pork. This seems absurd but, no doubt, they understand the huge cultural differences that this kind of ritual presents. It would be nice if we arrived at a place of mutual reflection on Yom Kippur, whether inside or outside of a synagogue, but we are not moving in this direction.
What direction are we moving in? That’s what I struggle with most right now. And I don’t have an easy answer because I don’t believe there are easy answers. But if we don’t talk more honestly and deeply about the growing identity abyss among the Jews within Israel and between Israel and the Diaspora, there may be less and less to talk about together when it comes to shaping a shared Jewish future.
Dr. Misha Galperin is author of two books and currently heads a philanthropic consultancy business. He is former CEO of Jewish Agency International Development. You can subscribe to his musings at Zandafi.com.