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Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are different in America than in Israel, but no less meaningful

In Israel, the Jewish holidays are all around you. In America, Jews have to seek out both religion and meaning. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing

Israeli acrobat Tel Karassin performs on a car-free highway, during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Israeli acrobat Tel Karassin performs on a car-free highway, during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Oct. 9, 2019. Israelis are marking Yom Kippur, or “Day of Atonement,” which is the holiest of Jewish holidays when observant Jews atone for the sins of the past year and the Israeli nation comes to almost a complete standstill. Many residents take bicycles onto the streets as no traffic is permitted on the roads.
Oded Balilty, Associated Press

I admit, I’m slightly grumpy during the Jewish High Holidays in America.

I miss this time in Israel, where the country shuts down and the holidays are all around you. Where you don’t have to seek the holidays out. Where they come to you, whether you want them or not. Where you don’t have to think too hard about their meaning or even about Judaism.

Where you can take your Jewishness for granted; where being Jewish is like breathing.

Here, in America, things are different.

Growing up in north Florida, I was usually the only Jewish kid in my grade that I knew of (we were not out and proud back then). There was no time off from school for Jewish holy days, like there was for the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. My classmates, and sometimes my teachers, had no idea what my religious holidays were — much less how to pronounce those unwieldy Hebrew words. At home, my mother was equal parts secular and fiercely proud of her — our — Jewish heritage (as is the case with most American Jews). So we observed the Jewish holidays, however minimally, and they passed without much fanfare.

But, in Israel — where almost everyone (other than the Arab minority) defines themselves as Jewish — but where less than half identify as religious — I found what I’d always been lacking. Not just Judaism. But an awareness of God.

On Friday afternoons, just before the Jewish sabbath, or Shabbat, began, I found God in the sound of stores closing, the clattering of the roll down steel security gates, the slam as they hit the ground.

I found God in the silence that came when the buses stopped.

I found God in the sound of neighbors’ Shabbat dinners drifting in through my open windows.

I found God in the laid-back vibe that permeated September (or October, or both, depending on when the holidays fall on the Jewish lunar calendar) embodied in the ubiquitous phrase “acharei hahagim,” meaning after the High Holidays. Everything grinds to a halt from Rosh Hashana, through Yom Kippur, and then beyond that, into Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Appointments, interviews, anything that was remotely serious could and would wait, just as everything pauses every week for Shabbat.

And on Yom Kippur — which begins this year at sundown Wednesday night — I found God not only in the fasting and solemnity that characterize many, if not most, American Jews’ observance of the holiday. But I also found God in secular Israelis’ enjoyment of the day, which means riding bikes or walking through the country’s empty streets — a practice so common that Israeli children call Yom Kippur “Bicycle Day.”

Adults ride bikes, too. One year, on Yom Kippur, a friend and I rode bikes from the north Tel Aviv neighborhood of Givat Amal, taking the empty Ayalon highway south and then weaving through the city, stopping to visit friends here and there along the way, until we finally ended at the sea, immersing ourselves as the sun lowered itself into the water.

These are the things I ache for.

Last year, for Yom Kippur, I fasted alone at home in West Palm Beach, Florida. I don’t remember much about the day other than going outside and studying a tree, contemplating the leaves while my blood sugar was low.

This year, I was determined to do better — to bring the High Holidays into our lives. I decided to take my children to synagogue for Rosh Hashana services and I’ll do so for Yom Kippur, too. In hopes of being held accountable, I announced my decision to family members and a handful of Jewish and Israeli friends — all of whom were so surprised they said the exact same thing:

“Wow.”

That’s what an American Israeli friend said. A decade ago, when we both lived in Tel Aviv, we’d meet up at the coffee shop we referred to as “our cafe.” There we sat not across from each other but side by side.

“Wow,” she said, on the phone. “That’s awfully Jewish of you.”

Her remark was loaded. In Israel, there are tensions between secular and religious Israelis. I explained how I felt like there was no other choice. How there’s no other way to feel the holiday in America. “Otherwise, you don’t feel anything here,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “I know.”

That it’s difficult to grab the holidays and hold on to them in America is something I felt keenly when I attended Rosh Hashana services on Tuesday last week. Inside the synagogue, there was this sense of calm, this feeling that time had stopped and that we were all taking this collective breath together. It was the same feeling I had during the holidays in Israel and, as the rabbi began services, the tears just rolled down my cheeks, soaking my mask. I couldn’t help it, and I couldn’t stop them. I cried, silently, through most of the service — out of sorrow, out of relief, out of joy to be surrounded by people who were sharing this moment in time with me, who were singing the same words I was, in the same language.

But then I stepped back out into the damp south Florida air and heard the unrelenting buzz of traffic and the feeling of the holiday, of being part of a collective moment, evaporated.

And so I climbed back into the car, checked my mirrors, gripped the wheel and drove away, merging into traffic, going about the rest of my day as though it wasn’t a holy day but, rather, just an ordinary Tuesday. I thought of how the next day would be an ordinary day, too.

But, then, on Wednesday morning last week — the second day of Rosh Hashana — I had an experience that was anything but ordinary.

I went to the beach to run and do a late tashlich. I stopped and tossed some shells into the water. And then I decided that wasn’t enough. I needed to put myself in the water, just as I did in Tel Aviv on so many Yom Kippurs. I took off my running shoes and went in, letting my body sink to the sandy floor. When I came up, I whispered a Hebrew prayer.

And then I got out of the water and made the first steps to continuing my day.

As I ran down the beach — worrying about the time, thinking only about getting home and getting to my desk, where my computer and a deadline were both waiting for me — out of the corner of my eye, I saw a stirring in the water. And then there was this clapping sound.

I stopped and stood, looking out at the water as whatever had just happened, happened again — these little dimples in the water that seemed to come out of nowhere and this sound: slap, slap, slap. Raindrops, my mind said. But the sky was completely clear, there were no clouds.

My brain couldn’t make sense of it so I kept watching, trying to figure out what was happening in the water where I’d just cast my sins and myself.

There it was again. What looked like drops in the water and that clapping. My eye caught something — the end of a tail, popping up, breaking the water’s surface, slapping it on the way back down. That’s when I figured it out: a school of small fish, breaking the surface again and again.

I hadn’t thrown breadcrumbs into the water like many do for tashlich, but it was as if God had sent me fish anyway, to gobble up the sins I’d cast into the water. Astounded, I stood for a moment, watching, listening, in total awe.

As the tide drew itself back into the ocean, shells bounced against each other, tinkling like tiny ankle bells.

I began to jog down the beach again, listening to the shell bells. And then I heard the slapping again. I looked at the ocean and there were the dimples.

The school of fish, I realized, was following me.

Not wanting to outrun them, but not wanting to miss a second of this moment, I turned and jogged backward until their dance stopped and the water was still again.

As I finished my run, I looked to the right, toward a gentle slope of sand. Someone had written “God is love.”

That’s when I knew. I don’t need Israel. There is magic here — God is here, too — in this land. Sure, it’s different than it was in Israel. You have to look for God here — you have to look for the signs and wonders — and when they come you have to stop and pay attention and puzzle over it all and figure out the message. But maybe there’s something actually good about that. Maybe it penetrates your soul in a different way.

That’s when I knew: God is with me — with you, with us — wherever we go.