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Day of No Traffic Lights

I know most Jews call Yom Kippur by various holy names, but here in Jerusalem I call it the ‘Day of No Traffic Lights.’ There are no working traffic lights because there’s no traffic on Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. Imagine–a capital city without any motor vehicle traffic at all except for emergency vehicles and army patrol jeeps. The quiet is absolutely stunning.

Starting from sundown on erev Yom Kippur until the final shofar blast that concludes the fast are 25 hours of blissful peace and quiet. All radio and TV stations go off the air. Pedestrians share the road with bicycles ridden by hundreds of secular Israelis who savor the day as a safe opportunity to try out their biking skills with no irritating traffic lights or crazy Israeli drivers. But the overwhelming sense is of a people taking a full day to recharge themselves.

Walking to Kol Nidre, the streets are thronged with people clad in white, to signify purity and a withdrawal for one day from the vanities of our usual fancy clothing.

Synagogues are packed to overflowing, and several hundred community centers around the country offer Yom Kippur services too, with emphasis on discussion and openness for those who might never have stepped foot in a synagogue.

After the Kol Nidre prayers are over, it’s as if the entire city spills out onto the streets. Strolling along in the middle of roads usually clogged with cars is the main pastime as people saunter off home, greeting friends along the way.

At my Jerusalem congregation, Shir Hadash, the inspiring tefilla is led for most of the day by Rabbi Shlomo Katz a former Baal Tefilah and spiritual guide in the Carlebach Minyan of Beth Jacob of Beverly Hills. At the closing service, Rabbi Ian Pear urges all those who can to stand and so we stack the chairs and crowd around the chazan for a two-way flow of spiritual energy. The singing and dancing on both sides of the mechitza is long and strong as we join together to pray for “Next Year in a rebuilt Jerusalem.”

Last year, I spent the closing Neilah service of Yom Kippur at a shul just down the street. I was too tired to trek back down to my regular shul after the afternoon break–doesn’t matter if Yom Kippur is in early September or mid-October, it’s always hot and dry here. Yom Kippur 2006 was no exception.

As soon as I took a seat at the very back of the shul, an elderly woman was wheeled in by her son who parked her wheelchair just in front of me. Her fingers were severely misshapen and she wore thick glasses. She carefully unfolded a Xerox copy of the Mussaf part of the Neilah service that had been blown up on large sheets of paper. Next she carefully extracted a magnifying glass from a little box and oblivious to the Hazzan, she proceeded to painstakingly slide the magnifying glass over every word of the prayers. She got done as the congregation came to the closing verses and she joined in the fervent singing of ‘Next year in a Rebuilt Jerusalem.’ She even managed to clap as the men danced in a lively circle to express joy at having been given another opportunity to make amends before God.

After the piercing tones of the shofar marked the conclusion of another ‘Day of No Traffic Lights’ and the congregation clamored out of the doors to get home for refreshments, half a dozen secular people from the neighborhood were just arriving hoping to hear the shofar. This particular shul finished a few minutes before the appointed time for the end of the holiday, (official summer time is thoughtfully brought to an end right after Rosh Hashana as we turned the clocks back to make sure that Yom Kippur ends no later than 6:15 p.m.) so they were disappointed to have missed it, but another group was still praying in another part of the building, so they quickly made their way down the stairs to take in the tradition.

Before I even made it home, a few cars were already on the streets and the ‘Day of No Traffic Lights’ was no more.

Posted By judy to Jerusalem Diaries:In Tense Times at 9/22/2007 08:42:00 PM

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