Non-Jewish In Tel Aviv At Yom Kippur

by Jane Shivers

ed. note: Jane Shivers and husband Bill Sharp are part-time locals in Telluride, and travel regularly for business and pleasure. This is Jane’s first submission to Telluride Inside… and Out.

Crowded Tel Aviv beach
Normal crowd at Tel Aviv beach

We’ve accidentally discovered a great time to go to Israel.  We arrived on a Thursday afternoon and checked in to the Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv. It is right across from the beach and in a great location for sunsets, beach walks, exercise, and good meals. When we arrived we asked the Concierge to set up a driver/guide for the next day to take us to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. There was some hesitation on her part because she said we would need to be back in Tel Aviv by about 4 p.m. because the city would shut down.

We have traveled all over the world and there are times the stores are closed for siestas, for Sabbath, or because it’s the time many shopkeepers go on holiday for two weeks in August. This situation in other places is not usually city-wide. There are always exceptions. This “shut down” in Israel would take on a whole new meaning.

We could do the trip if we left the hotel at 7 a.m. so we did. Our driver/guide was very knowledgeable not only about history but also current geopolitics and policy. We sped off to Jerusalem, which is only about an hour from Tel Aviv. My first impression was that Tel Aviv, the buildings, the highways, the housing all are so contemporary and look like most other modern cities in the world. I was expecting something a bit more rustic, more historic looking. Arriving in Jerusalem, it was the same feeling. Even the very old synagogues, mosques, churches and gardens seemed a bit too “fixed up”.  Tour buses were lined up in droves. There was a sense of an impending time deadline and we didn’t waste a moment. No snacks, meals or coffee breaks. Let’s go. We stood on the Mount of Olives. We tried to get the perfect photo of the Dome of the Rock and reflect on the story of all that has happened on that site.  We took in the personality of the Old City. As we approached the most famous religious site in the world for the Jewish faithful, the Western Wall, ultra conservative Jews in their black coats and fur hats, children in white shirts and black pants or skirts and the boys in yarmulke and long side curls were rushing to get their prayers done and catch the bus to wherever they were going to spend the holiday. Buses would stop running by 3 p.m. We hadn’t really caught on to the magnitude of this. Because the ultra Orthodox don’t drive, if they missed the public bus, they would not get where they wanted to go for the next 24 plus hours

I joined in with the women on the women’s side of the wall. Their prayers were put on scraps of paper and put in the wall’s creases. They pressed their prayer books to their faces and were focused on their practice.  Bill and the driver were on the men’s side and got to go inside. Women weren’t allowed.

We headed to Bethlehem. Our driver could not take us in because he is Jewish. Instead, he had lined up a Palestinian driver who took us through the security gate at the wall. The wall is imposing and loaded with graffiti on the Palestinian side but not on the Israeli side, a sign perhaps of how they feel about the wall.  We met our Palestinian guide who took us to see the main site of Jerusalem; the Church of the Nativity, which is divided into three parts, Catholic, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox and which many Christians believe is built on the site where Jesus was born in a cave.  We went through the door of humility. We saw the star that marks the spot where Jesus supposedly was born. We saw the area where he was placed in a manger. There were many tourists there and it made it feel more like Disney World than a spiritually important place.

We returned to Tel Aviv and had lunch in the Muslim area of Jaffa. We walked around afterward at around 3:30 p.m. and all the stores were closed out of respect for the Jewish holiday. Israel has 7 million people, 2 million of whom are Muslim.  At around 4 we noticed no cars. We walked back to the hotel and no one was in the lobby. All hotel stores were closed. The security guards and gate at the driveway were closed and not manned. The pool was closed. The fitness center closed. People were vacating the beach. By sundown you could hear the silence. No cars. No people out walking about. The hotel had given us a list of what we could find to eat in the hotel that evening and the next day. Not much.

On Friday, Yom Kippur, it was a perfect day in Tel Aviv to be Christian, Muslim or a non-practicing Jew. Not a car moved. It is illegal to drive. In over 15 hours we saw one ambulance on the street. No cars. There were Muslim families strolling with their children. You could ride a bike on any street or highway and not worry about cars. The entire country is shut down. No planes land at the airport. No taxis. No stores, restaurants, even the coffee machine in the executive lounge of the hotel has a sign that says it does not operate on Shabbat.

It is so quiet. There are a lot of people at the beach—all the non-Jewish population is enjoying itself but you can’t rent anything like a bike or buy anything anywhere or even use the public beach restrooms. They are locked. Forget about it.

Dogs frolic with their masters in the water and enjoy walking down what would normally be a seriously busy four-lane road. All is quiet. No music. No salespeople. It feels a bit like how we feel in the US when there is a big storm warning and a power outage and we all have to just cope with no stove or microwave or lights.

We eat a few vegetables they put out in the lounge.  We nap. We read books. We walk and talk. The rest of the population is at home with family fasting. There are no lights in the houses or anywhere. We are forced to take it easy and it feels great.

All day we linger and rest and marvel at the ocean and the view and the quiet and the stillness of it all. We are in a huge hotel with a massive lobby and it is empty. All closed. All quiet. No newspapers are flown in. No coffee shop. Just one or two people at the front desk. No reservations to make because all restaurants closed. Those who are not Jewish are quiet, respectful.

Then the sun sets. Slowly lights come on in the city. An awakening.  By 8 p.m. all is back to normal. Cars start rolling. Restaurants open. People go out in droves. All atoned. Ready for the next year.

It has been a lovely two days in Israel.

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