On Yom Kippur, Tel Aviv becomes bicyclists’ haven
TEL AVIV — As afternoon dims into dusk on the eve of Yom Kippur, an extraordinary thing happens in this secular metropolis: Israel’s city that rarely sleeps grinds to a standstill and is enveloped in a strange and wonderful silence.
Traffic thins and eventually disappears. Stores are shuttered as last-minute shoppers line up to buy provisions to last the 25hour holiday, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
While religious Jews dressed in holiday whites hurry to synagogue to start atoning for the past year’s sins, a secular ritual is also beginning.
Parents lug bicycles out of basement bomb shelters. Children pop their heads out in between parked cars to see if it is finally safe to go into the road. The echo of car horns is replaced by the pinging of bicycle bells.
Such is the odd spiritual yin and yang of Jewish observance in Tel Aviv.
Israel has no law banning driving on Yom Kippur, but the only vehicles on the roads are ambulan- ces and police cars. That turns the city into an enormous playground for bicycle riders, skateboarders, pedestrians and dogs.
“It’s a voluntary thing that no one drives on Yom Kippur,” says Avishai Amir, a retiree strolling up a tree-lined boulevard with his purebred Akita. “It’s a spark of Jewish solidarity with the ultra-Orthodox. If they passed a ban, all of the secular people would drive.”
After dark, Habima Square fills with hundreds of families. Parents socialize as children wobble along on training wheels and teenagers plan nocturnal bicycle rides to neighboring cities.
“Yom Kippur means freedom,” says Tom Inbar, a seventh grader chatting with two girls about their route and who would be joining. “It’s an experience. You can ride in the roads, just once a year.”
Several blocks away, about 50 Orthodox Jews sit in an intersection and chant praise to God as bicycles go around them. Wearing a long white beard and a prayer shawl, Rabbi Betzalel Tsur says the bikes do not disrupt the solemni- ty of the holiday.
“The division between religious and secular during the year is unimportant,” he said. “On Yom Kippur we’re all humans.”
Other more liberal rabbis view the bicycle festivities in the context of the holiday’s emphasis on community and getting along with neighbors.
Ultra-religious Jews are less forgiving. As on the Sabbath, when work and creative activity are banned, riding bikes on Yom Kippur is forbidden in their interpretation of Jewish law.
It is “a desecration of the holy day,” one ultra-Orthodox rabbi told the online Walla news service.
That view appears to be in the minority, at least in Tel Aviv.
The next morning, Ran Sprinzak, a lawyer and his 4-year-old daughter Dafna ride side-by-side down Rokach Boulevard. “Zionism was secular,” Sprinzak says. “The people who came here left religion, and did things to spite their parents and the old way of life. This might be part of it.” Ultra-Orthodox Jews look out over the Mediterranean Sea this week in Herzliya, Israel.