Nov 3, 2011

While Tel Aviv Napped

Tel Aviv is a city that never sleeps.  I concluded this early on, shortly after arriving in Israel and making unending parallels between Tel Aviv and my former home-city, Manhattan (I talk about it in an earlier post, too).  The biggest difference, as my car-less and bike-less self is ever-conscious of, is the lack of 24-7 public transportation.  As much as I hate on the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the New York subway and bus systems) while I’m in Manhattan, it’s definitely doing something right.

Israel’s public transportation system stops running on Shabbat and holidays for a combination of religious and political reasons that I won’t go into right now.  I’m more interested in talking about what happens on Yom Kippur, Judaism’s most solemn holiday during which people fast, refrain from using lotions and perfumes, and abstain from physical relations.  All the usual Shabbat and High Holiday restrictions apply, as well: using electricity, driving, and writing are all taboo.

Yom Kippur, also known as The Day of Atonement, is widely celebrated in a way that other Jewish holidays are not.  Even unobservant and secular Jews tend to do something differently on Yom Kippur (even if it’s just taking the day off work in the United States, fasting for a short time, or going to synagogue for a few hours).  Non-Jewish friends have told me that Manhattan’s rush hour seems far tamer on Yom Kippur, given the significantly decreased number of commuters.

The difference between rush hour in New York on a normal day and on Yom Kippur, however, pales in comparison to the difference between life in Tel Aviv on a normal day and on Yom Kippur.  Tel Aviv, a city far more secular than Jerusalem, usually doesn’t miss a beat.  The majority of restaurants, bars, stores, pharmacies, supermarkets, and movie theatres stay open throughout Shabbat and holidays.  But Yom Kippur is different.  Everything stops running.  Well, almost everything—the traffic lights keep working, but it’s not like they do much since driving is illegal and the only things on the streets are people and bikes.  It’s as if the city’s inhabitants are taking advantage of their child’s (Tel Aviv) nap.  Rather than stay in and watch TV (which I heard from others is also limited as many networks simply put up messages wishing people happy holidays), Israelis go out en masse.  They seem to embrace Yom Kippur as a time to spend time with friends on the streets, since they have no way to get to anywhere and no where to go to in any case.

I can’t express how strange it was to walk along one of Israel’s largest highways or how cool it was to dance in the middle of a huge intersection.  It was truly a once in a lifetime experience (for me, anyways—Israelis get to experience it annually!)  While the streets were pretty packed with people in the early evening, by 1am most streets were relatively deserted. 
Dancing in an intersection next to the Azrieli Center. Picture compliments of Justin Ellis.
An empty highway.  Picture compliments of Justin Ellis.
I personally don’t use electronic items during Yom Kippur, so unfortunately I don’t have many pictures documenting the transformation of the usually bustling Tel Aviv into an eerie ghost-town.  One of my friends, however, took pictures and videos of our journey through the city.
In an intersection next to the Azrieli Center.  Picture compliments of Justin Ellis.
Hanging out on an empty highway. Picture compliments of Justin Ellis.
By the next night, as Yom Kippur concluded, the city awoke.  Cars were back on the streets before we could even finish the 10-minute walk from synagogue back to our apartment.  Tel Aviv’s restaurants and bars opened shortly after as people milled out onto the streets to break their fasts, go to parties, or simply revel in Tel Aviv’s reawakening.  Tel Aviv’s annual nap was over and its Israeli parents were ready, as always, to play with it once more.


  1. You perfectly capture how Tel Aviv takes a break on Yom Kippur. All of the city's hustle and bustle just dissolves in a peaceful calm of families taking walks together, neighbors talking in the streets, and couples dancing in intersections :). It reminds me of how it was back in the states after Hurricane Irene, when everyone who had lost power hung out with friends on the street

  2. Yom Kippur in Israel is definitely an experience. It's very different from what it's like in the states, where it's hard to feel the holiness of the day.
    -Hana M

  3. @Hana M--b'shana haba b'yerushalaim!