10 Things That Happen During the Holidays — Only in Israel
1. Everyone wishes you a happy new year, easy fast and happy holiday — just as they do for Christmas in the United States
Seriously — everyone and everything. Bus billboards, bus drivers, Coke bottles, food packaging, restaurants, you name it. For once, you don’t have to offer up an awkward half-smile or an explanation of “I’m Jewish.”
2. Holiday hospitality
During Sukkot, my family stopped by a cheese store to buy some cheese boards made of olive wood. As my dad scrutinized each board, the shop owner offered us coffee. We gladly accepted, and to our amazement, he said, “I’ll be back” and ran to get us coffee from across the street at a coffee shop. The extent to which people go out of their way to make others feel at home in Israel is nothing short of amazing. This is especially true during the holidays, when there is an unspoken policy of “no one is left behind.”
3. Yom Kippur: no cars whatsoever — or flights
Yom Kippur is the only day of the year when everything in Israel stops. Religious Jews go to synagogue and fast, and non-religious Jews bike around the city, enjoying the carless roads. Even Ben-Gurion Airport closes, and airspace over Israel is completely clear of incoming and outgoing planes.
4. Extreme diversity and pluralism in level of observance
One of the greatest things about the holidays in Israel is that everyone has their own way of participating, no matter their nationality or level of religious observance. For Rosh Hashanah this year, I went from religious services at the Great Synagogue and Chabad, to having a friend drive me to a religiously observant meal, to enjoying the meal with seven people from five different continents. Two were not Jewish, two were secular, and three were religiously observant. If the Messiah indeed comes when Jews of all kinds come together, it will probably happen at a Rosh Hashanah meal.
5. Hotel Experiences
In Israel, many hotels offer holiday packages for people who don’t want to bother preparing meals and walking to synagogue. This year, my family went to the Orthodox Union’s program at Jerusalem Garden and Spa Hotel. There, we had a pre-fast meal, Kol Nidre services, Yom Kippur services and lectures, and a break-the-fast meal. One of the best parts of Yom Kippur in Israel is at the end of the service when we say “next year in Jerusalem,” we already are!
6. “After the holidays” is a reasonable excuse
October is notoriously a low point for work and a high point for holidays in Israel. It seems that nearly every other day is a holiday. When it comes to work and social activities, the most commonly heard phrase is “after the holidays…” Because let’s be honest: eating, praying and celebrating takes more than enough of our time already.
7. Trying to explain kaparot or Sukkot to visitors
If you’ve ever tried to explain holidays to non-Jews, you know the confusion that ensues. Explaining Sukkot is especially humorous. “We live in big tent-like structures, decorate them with branches and fruit, and then shake around four species of plants … what’s there not to understand?” Another weird one to explain is the kaparot ritual: a sacrificial chicken is swung around one’s head, killed and then given to the poor.
8. Laughing at UNESCO
While the world gasped in anger at UNESCO’s resolution that claimed no Jewish connection to Jerusalem and its holy sites, tens (maybe even hundreds) of thousands of Jews gathered at the Western Wall for selichot prayers, ahead of Yom Kippur. Needless to say, it is folly for anyone to deny the connection between Jews and their holy sites.
9. People use time off for good
During the weekdays of Sukkot, many are given time off of work, but Israelis use this time as “time on.” They travel, spend time with their families, go on hikes, and even march for peace. Over Sukkot, a group of 6,000 Jewish and Arab women and male supporters marched around Jerusalem, holding signs calling for a peaceful resolution for all people living in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The march, organized by “Women Wage Peace” ended in a massive rally at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence. Also during Sukkot, puppet shows, entertainers and parades enlivened Jerusalem’s city center.
10. Restaurants: Eating in the sukkah
Unlike in the US, sukkot line nearly every street — both in the middle of the city as well as residential areas. Almost every family has their own sukkah. Some take it very seriously, moving their couches, desks, bookshelves, dining room table, sleeping cots, and belongings inside. They truly live in the sukkah. Kosher restaurants also have their own sukkahs for visitors — a tradition that is probably unheard of anywhere else in the world.
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of the “Israel Girl” column for JNS.org. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her column on JNS.org.