Imagine a country that bans automobiles from the road for an entire day every year. Think of the environmental impact—not only the effect on the country’s carbon footprint, but also its influence as a model of how life is possible with a car.
There is such a country—Israel—and the day without cars is Yom Kippur. This Friday afternoon at around 5:00 automobile traffic will dwindle to zero, leaving the roads a bicyclist’s paradise. Streets will remain empty until the sirens sound 25 hours later marking the end of the fast day.
A lot of other modern services go offline during Yom Kippur as well. Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport shuts down entirely, not just for El Al but for all flights. Radio and television stations go off the air. Stores and restaurants are closed. It’s a legal holiday, and these restrictions are the law.
Many perceptions of Israel are based on stereotypes rather than reality, so Americans sometimes imagine that this is a medieval regimen foisted on an unwilling majority by a tyrannical minority of fanatics. But the benefits of a day free of technology are appreciated by many more people than ritually observant Jews.
Even the stridently secular newspaper Haaretz concedes that Yom Kippur in Israel “has turned from wretched to beloved, to a charming holiday breathlessly awaited each year, so much so that the very quietness stemming from numerous prohibitions, and formerly seen as a product of religious coercion, has turned into [a] much desired phenomenon.”
Besides, Israel is not as secular as Americans often imagine. A recent survey of Jews over 20 in Israel found self-identified secular Jews are in the minority. According to the study, “42 percent of the Jewish population characterize themselves as secular.” Even so, fully 72 percent of all Jews said they had visited a synagogue over the previous year. And of those who counted themselves among the secular, “26 percent said they had fasted on Yom Kippur, 17 percent build a sukkah and 82 percent regularly conduct a seder at Passover.” In other words, a lot of so-called secular Jews in Israel behave very differently from secular Jews in the United States.
Alongside the very real resentments of the Israeli rabbinate and its imposition of religion-based stringencies on public life, there is a countervailing attachment by many Israeli Jews to tradition in a personal, subjective way. That contrasts with the reflexive embrace of rational, universalist ideas that is commonplace among American Jews. It’s one of the reasons American Jews misunderstand Israel. Yom Kippur exerts a strong pull on Jewish Israelis beyond its overt religious meaning, which is why there is little resistance to the ban on so many activities that day.
Two American Jews have been suggesting something similar, albeit on a voluntary basis. Mark DiMassimo and Eric Yaverbaum, in Westchester County near New York City, have founded Offlining, Inc. as a way of encouraging parents to reserve more quality time for their families. Now they’re encouraging people of any or no religion in the United States to go offline this September 18, which is of course Yom Kippur. Can it happen here? If you will it, it is no dream.
Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, also writes regularly for eJewishPhilanthropy.com. His Twitter feed about Jews, the arts, and Jewish culture can be found at Twitter.com/bobgoldfarb.
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