Yom Kippur, perhaps for its promise of instant redemption, is the one day that otherwise secular Jews in Tel Aviv impose the hard rules of the Torah upon themselves — and gladly.
They complained about it all through the first two weeks of September, warning of this coming Doomsday where the cafes and corner stores would go dark and the streets of Tel Aviv would fill with the bored and hungry, but I always got the feeling they loved it deep down. Like one loves a snow day, or a rolling blackout.
It was even better than they said.
As dusk rolled around on Friday, the calm set in. Tel Aviv's epic war of car horns faded with the sun, making room for noise that usually gets drowned out: Birds. Dogs. Wind. Kids. (Really, who knew there were kids in this city?) The freeways dried up — a voluntary Carmageddon. Young bicycle gangs who only meet up once a year raced down the empty streets, dodging pets and toddlers. Traffic lights rotated peacefully through red, yellow and green, changing for no one. Five-year-olds ran unattended through the bad part of town. The air on Allenby Street, Tel Aviv's widest and smoggiest thoroughfare, turned sweet and summery. We could breathe again. (And it wasn't just me — it's science!)
Yom Kippur is likely more dramatic in Jerusalem, a larger city with residents far more devoted to the rules of holiday. The scene at the Western Wall is dazzling. But there's nothing like watching a modern, mostly non-observant metropolis drop everything — including its cellphones — to self-reflect. "This is like THE day to remorse and try to get your Jew soul some redemption," a friend told me on Facebook. Even the cityfolk who didn't plan to fast or turn off their electronics found ritual in pre-Yom Kippur runs to AM:PM, shuffling home with enough canned food and bottled water to stock a Cold War bunker, then queuing up an entire TV season on Netflix.
Once the quiet descended, hordes of 20somethings began to roam the streets with their friends. They went to go get drunk in apartments with the music low like they were in high school again, groaning about how boring Tel Aviv is without the bars open but secretly embracing these rare parameters. Sometimes, in a city that spends so much energy rebelling against the cold traditions of Jerusalem, it feels good to give into religion.
I woke up Friday without the alarm of a garbage truck, a power drill or a motorcycle accident. Even the street cats stopped screaming their blood-curdling rape screams for a day. If that's not a soul cleanse, what is?