Monday, September 28, 2009

Yom Kippur in Yerushalayim

Officially had my first “Wow” moment spending Yom Kippur in Yerushalayim. I don’t consider myself to be very religious but this was the most spiritual Yom Kippur I’ve experienced and the location had everything to do with it. When the fast started at 4:49pm, a siren wailed throughout the city and everything came to a stop – people finished lighting their candles and walked to shul. There were no cars on the road, no stores, bakeries or offices open, and it was really a meaningful and inspiring holiday.

This year was also the longest fast I’ve ever had, which is strange because the holiday ended earlier than any year in Boston. In Israel, we changed to Standard Time on Saturday night and turned the clocks back and hour to make the fast easier and have it end an hour earlier than it would have. My entire program stayed at the Lev Yerushalayim hotel right near Ben Yehuda Street (a great location and it’s where people who will be in Jerusalem for our third part will be living) and we had both our pre-fast and break-fast meals at the hotel. The catch was that we had to eat our final meal at 3pm because their kitchen closed at 3:30. So we were done eating by 3:30 and the fast didn’t officially start until 4:49, and then today it ended at 6:05pm, so it was close to a 27 hour fast instead of a 25 hour fast.

We got a list of all the shuls in the area and a description of each one so we could decide which one we wanted to go to. For Kol Nidre, I went to the Great Synagogue, a modern-Orthodox congregation, and it definitely lived up to its name. The sanctuary was so beautiful with chandeliers and stained glass all over. At some point I would like to go back there to get a better look at the building and at all the Judaica they have all around. The choir sung beautifully and even though they mainly sung tunes I didn’t know, it was so cool to see such a packed place (my friend Scott and I estimated there were close to a thousand men and 500 women in just this one congregation), and to know that places all over Jerusalem and all over Israel were packed just the same.

For the morning service today, I went with a bunch of people to the Conservative Center, and it was exactly the kind of service I was looking for. It was founded by American olim so the prayer books had English translations (it was actually the same Machzor I use at home) and the rabbi’s sermon was in English. There was plenty of singing, which made me feel very at-home.

We got back to the hotel around 2 and I did get an hour and a half nap in before it was time to leave for Ne’ilah. The great thing about the hotel we stayed at was there were all sorts of different shuls within a 10 or 15 minute walk, and then the Kotel was about half an hour away. I knew that the Kotel was where I wanted to be for the end, so I went with a few friends and we got there around 4:30pm, just before the Ne’ilah service. I spent the first half hour or so just taking in the atmosphere, walking from one corner to the next, listening to everyone singing and praying. There were probably 25 or 30 different services going on at the same time, each one sounding just a bit different than the one next to it. I joined one that was loud enough that I could follow along. I did some praying but I was mesmerized by my surroundings – how we went from light to darkness, how we were standing at a spot where Jews for centuries upon centuries prayed to return to. At the very end of Yom Kippur, the shofar is sounded to conclude the fast, and since each service ends at a different moment, around 6pm, shofarot rang out throughout the Kotel area and people started dancing and singing.

There was one unfortunate incident. As I was turning to leave the Kotel and walk back towards the plaza, this guy stopped me, he couldn’t have been more than 20 or 21, was not wearing a black hat or a beard, just a tallit, and he pointed to my earring and smiled. I thought he liked it. But then he explained to me I needed to do Teshuvah (a prayer for repentance) because of the earring and he opened up his prayer book and pointed to the prayer he wanted me to do. So I told him I wasn’t about to say any prayer because he wanted me to. And he goes, “Only Go’im have earrings, Jews don’t” and I told him it was none of his business and it wasn’t his place on Yom Kippur of all days to tell me what to do and how to pray to God. I have plenty of religious relatives, and even though we don’t observe the same way, none of them would ever tell me how to live my life or how to pray. It definitely left a sour taste in my mouth.

But that taste was quickly changed to a sweet taste, because there were juices and challah and little muffins being handed out at the Kotel plaza to break the fast. It definitely made all the difference in the world, to have a little bit of something before our half hour walk back to the hotel for our big break-fast meal.

So now we have a short week – just 3 days of ulpan before our Sukkot vacation. It’s crazy that we have a full vacation so early into our program. I’ll be going to Tel Aviv, Eilat, Petra and Jerusalem over the break, and I’ll definitely have heaps and heaps of pictures of the adventures to post when I get back.

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