This is the latest post from my blog, “Sacred and Insane,” about being a new, secular immigrant and journalist in Jerusalem. Please visit and read all of the previous “chapters” (yeah, I wish…).
Yom Kippur had just begun about five hours before, when I had scrambled to begin my fast on time by throwing together a cheese sandwich with some eggs on the side. High protein, whole grains and then an insane amount of water — particularly because I had just gone running only an hour an half before the fast (stupid, I know).
I’m still trying to figure out why exactly I fast, when I have absolutely no idea what I believe in or what I think it’s accomplishing, but for some reason it feels right just to do it. And as Ravid said — he comes from a secular Israeli family — it’s something that separates this day from the rest of the year.
These were some of the things that I was thinking about as I walked from my apartment on Sderot Herzl to my friend Cori‘s home in Nachlaot that evening.
The absolute silence across Jerusalem is astonishing. Whereas on Shabbat, you still see your fair amount of cars on the roads, on Yom Kippur there are almost none — aside from an occasional ambulance, police car or the rebellious red speed racer I saw jetting down Sderot Ben Tsvi.
Yellow traffic lights flash simply because there is no need for green or red, and pedestrians stroll down the middle of major highways, only in danger of colliding with the ambling cyclists — who are also taking advantage of the empty roads for the next 25 hours.
After sleeping over at Cori’s apartment, I went with her in the morning to a small Modern Orthodox minyan in Emek Refaim, organized by her boyfriend Paul and some of his close friends, who all wanted to avoid paying the ticket price for seats at their normal shuls (yes, this occurs in Israel too, apparently). They held the all-day minyan in the apartment of Â Paul’s career mentor, an elderly Swedish journalist who had died recently, to honor his memory.
The congregants were predominantly American and European and ranged in age from mid-20s to mid-80s, with a makeshift sheet-and-clothespin mechitza to separate the women from the men. In retrospect, I kind of wish that the divider went down the center of the room rather than tucking the women behind the men, so that we could see what was going on, but there’s only so much you can do in a tiny Jerusalem apartment.
But really, these guys were quite innovative. With a Torah borrowed from a local synagogue — backed with a heavy amount of “Torah insurance” — they led quite a spiritual day of prayers, encouraging each of the men to participate in various parts of the services. Meanwhile, they used the kitchen sink for ritual hand-washing, and there was a bed in the back for anyone who felt faint from the fast.
All of the old man’s books and belongings were still perfectly in place, and during some of the longer prayers I couldn’t help but glance around and try piece this man’s life together based solely on the photos and artifacts stacked on his bookshelves. A vinyl record compilation of pieces by Beethoven, a book on New York City and a joyful black-and-white photograph of a young man and his new wife probably from the 1950s.
I wanted to know more.
But after about four hours and the conclusion of Shacharis(t), Â I decided to leave the old man’s apartment for the day and take myself for a solitary walk around Jerusalem, to clear my head and to think about the new year ahead of me, in such a new, vibrant place.
My goal was to go amble around the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, but I never made it there because I of course got lost. No matter how well I know a place, I somehow manage to get lost, without fail. I guess I’ve inherited my geographical expertise from my mother.
In the end, after over an hour of walking around a combination of Emek Refaim, Katamon and Rechavia, I finally made it to the Mamilla Mall area and entered the Old City through Jaffa Gate — where tourism was alive and Arab bread-makers tempted my nostrils. By the time I made it through the Armenian Quarter (after getting lost again, of course), however, I realized that if I went all the way down to the kotel I might not be able to make it back to my apartment in my completely dehydrated state.
So I saved that for another day’s journey, and after resting on a rock overlooking the Ma’ale HaShalom Highway, I decided it was time to take the hour-long walk home. Â And after getting myself a bit lost yet again, I finally found my way to known territory — Hillel Street to King George to Agripas — and passed by Shuk Machane Yehuda, which apparently serves as a parking lot on Yom Kippur (I wish I took a photo — yes, there were minivans instead of fruit stands).
Once home, it was time for a four-hour nap, interrupted only by a piercing headache and the screaming — ahem, playful — children running around the neighborhood.