Sunday, September 27, 2009

Putting More 'Secular' Into Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is a beautiful night in Israel—cars stop, Israeli television doesn't broadcast, not a single store or restaurant opens, children don their skates and climb onto bicycles to pedal (safely) down the middle of roads, neighbors mill about in intersections.

Some Israelis fast, but all use the opportunity to take a deep breath and reconsider the past year, what the next might hold. Of course, when I say everybody, I largely mean Israeli Jews. Yom Kippur is of course a Jewish holiday. But, all Israelis, Jewish and non-, observe the ‘no-drive’ edict. It’s not a formal law, but no one, I mean NO ONE drives (except in emergencies). Think about it--in a country of over 7 million people, not a single car on the road!

Last year, when a few Israelis ignored what might be called a voluntary law, violence erupted. This year, things were calm.
This is the lovely side of a religious state. And don’t misunderstand, Israel is a religious state. Religion infiltrates education, marriage, civil decisions. My husband, who is Jewish, and I couldn’t marry in Israel because I’m not Jewish. We married in the US, and Israel does recognize all marriages conducted outside its borders. Interestingly, Cyprus does a brisk business in marrying secular Israelis who don’t want to be married by an Orthodox Rabbi. On another sour note, this year, Israel initiated daylight savings a full month before the rest of the world because the ‘religious’ demand it happen before Yom Kippur. Supposedly it makes the fasting a bit easier (so much for torturing one’s soul).

Today's Ha-Aretz (an Israeli daily newspaper considered by many to be left wing) featured a prominent editorial titled “Why Israel must become a secular state: a thought for Yom Kippur.” It’s not a new idea within the secular Israeli community and one supported to various degrees by many Israelis speak with. He writes, “Nowhere else are Jews trying to impose their religious creeds on each other; nowhere else has the conflict between religion and freethinking remained as bitter as in Israel. The involvement of religion in Israeli politics has led to a polarization that is not to be found anywhere else in world Jewry. Far from leading to Kiddush Hashem, the involvement of religion in politics has led to a culture war that is completely unnecessary.” One person told me yesterday, that the worst thing that could happen to Israel would be peace with its neighbors; then we’d have to focus on what’s going on internally. Of course, that’s a fight we’d all prefer.

Of course, after being mistaken for Jewish (I mean my name IS Sarah Fishman) many times, I fully believe Israel is necessary. Antisemitism is alive and well. And we only have to turn on the television, open a newspaper, hear the vitriol coming from Iran to understand. But, isn’t it something more to think about as this year’s Yom Kippur comes to a close?

And, finally, here was a poem I wrote after last year's Yom Kippur violence and after just having returned from a few days in beautiful Akko.

Everyday History

Violent clashes between Jewish and Arab residents of Akko erupted
when an Arab resident of the Old City drove
through a predominantly Jewish area on the eve of Yom Kippur.

If history must be made every day, let it be one
in a car with all four windows rolled down, on the way
to stay in a hotel composed from bones
of what used to be a fortress. Let it be where the air
is pomegranate sweet, where grass grows the color
of crayon on parapets buried six inches deep
in loam and fertilizer. If history must be made
every day, let it be in a place where metal shutters
don’t function, but polyester pillows stuffed in windows
muffle the men singing karaoke in Arabic and Hebrew
well enough for sleeping, where the only museum refuses
to display anything airport security might confuse
with a weapon. Let it be one where locals gather
on carpets to eat khummus and salad, whistle
at women (especially those wearing caftans, brightly
patterned scarves) and the women understand
that if one of them walked up, history might be made
even that day. If history’s got to be made, let it be
the place where every one-legged policeman gets paid,
where cats crouch in the shadows waiting for scraps
they know are coming their way, any second.

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