Yom Kippur, Tel Aviv, Thursday September 16, 2021
Text and photo by Anne Evans
It was a Yom Kippur like no other, and I have been through a few in my 73 years. What made this one so different was that it was my first Yom Kippur since making aliyah and my first as a resident of Tel Aviv.
I had arrived from London just a few weeks earlier, on July 14th, and was still feeling a bit wobbly about the whole thing, but by the end of Yom Kippur I knew I had made the right decision.
My first surprise came when I asked a friend whether Yom Kippur was a sad day or a happy day from her point of view. She looked at me in amazement and said: a happy day of course!
I had always dreaded Yom Kippur. I was a financial journalist working at a major London newspaper and it meant getting permission from my editor to take a day's holiday, a request which was always granted but often grudgingly, particularly if it happened to be an important news day. And some years, if I found myself abroad on an assignment, I would just have to work through the day. Being the only person in the office absenting myself was a lonely feeling. In fact, the whole day felt odd as no one in the streets around where I lived either knew or cared about Yom Kippur.
Not being religious and not living in a Jewish area, the big question every time was how to best spend the day. Fasting while sitting at home or wandering around aimlessly was a pretty miserable option so I early on decided that going to synagogue was preferable, as indeed it always proved to be. The service was always beautiful, the choir amazing and it was reassuring to look around and nod at friends and acquaintances, some of whom I only ever saw on this one special day of the year.
But the day was long and as I lived too far to pop back home and back again, it was always something of an ordeal.
But this time it was different.
In fact, I was in for a big surprise on the actual day but even before that the scene was set by a lunch at my daughter-in-law's parents' house on the eve of Yom Kippur. The extended family was there, lots of children included, amongst them my three small granddaughters. They were happy to be with their cousins and aunts and uncles, as well as parents and grandparents, so the atmosphere was festive as compared with the gloom and apprehension of a pre-Yom Kippur day in the office back in London.
As for the delicious food, it was enough to set one up for several days of fasting, let alone one.
I did not make it to Kol Nidre that night as I was not sure where to go, not being a member of any synagogue and not knowing what the arrangements would be for participating in a service.
The next day, I went for a long walk with a friend in the area of Tel Aviv which I now call home. She showed me the nooks and crannies which give each part of Tel Aviv it's special character and I soaked up and relished the special atmosphere which pervades the city on this special day of the year. By the way, I have yet to meet a citizen of this city who does not think they have discovered the perfect niche in it for themselves.
I pondered how to end the day. Realizing that I lived within a short walking distance of the Grand Synagogue on Allenby Street and having been told that it was probably open to visitors, I decided I would wander over at just after 6.00pm for the Neila service.
It was a shot in the dark but as I made my way through quiet, empty streets, a great sense of adventure began to take hold. Even usual bustling Allenby Street was quiet, with the only activity being people walking in groups, children on bicycles and the odd adolescent whizzing past on a scooter. As I neared the Grand Synagogue, I realized I had chanced upon something special. People dressed in white were gathering in the courtyard outside, at the foot of the two sets of staircases leading up from either side to the magnificent, raised entrance to the synagogue which was to serve as the bima for an outdoor service.
Upon it stood the rabbi, the chazan and various people with a special part to play, including the young man who was to impress us all with his shofar blowing when the big moment arrived.
The left-hand stairs leading up to the bima had a sign saying "Gvarim" and the right-hand stairs a sign saying "Nashim" and already congregants had taken up position on the stairs in order to be as close as possible to the action. Down below, plastic chairs had been set out and those, along with the benches which adorn all public spaces in Tel Aviv, provided ample seating space for visitors like me. The synagogue had also printed out the Neila prayers in booklets available for all comers.
It was a magical scene. I was surrounded by an array of people, including many young women, some serious, others just chatting away to each other, plus mothers and children and older people like me and men of all ages too. There were family groups, couples, friends and lone visitors and I had that wonderful feeling that although I did not know anyone there, I knew them all. They were as familiar to me as old friends and for the first time in my life, I had the feeling that I was part of one big family.
As the prayers began, more and more people turned up until the crowd swelled to the point where it spilled out onto the pavement and Allenby Street itself. The word had clearly gone out and I was thankful I had turned up early enough to bag a plastic chair.
The service was beautiful and the rabbi kindly reminded us from time to time of the page we had reached so that everyone who wanted to could follow the prayers and participate in the service.
It was a soft, sunlit evening, with a beautiful breeze wafting in from the not very far away sea. And when the service drew to a close and the sun finally sank, the synagogue lights and the street lamps came on, bang on cue for the final, glorious blowing of the shofar, followed by a rousing singing of Hatikva.
It was a Yom Kippur to remember and as the crowds gradually drifted off and I started walking back to my flat, I felt that this was how it was meant to be. I had had a special day, from start to finish, with time to reflect but in addition a sense of community and belonging. For the first time, being Jewish and being part of the Jewish people seemed real and positive and most important of all, natural. I had finally come home.