In the Jewish calendar the period of “Slichot”, which means forgiveness, is a time of turning inward to reflect and contemplate on our own behavior and our relationships with both humankind and the Divine. Slichot starts prior to the Jewish New Year and leads up to the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the most solemn day of the year, which this year begins at sundown tonight and ends after nightfall Wednesday night.

dour faithful among cheery infidels

Image credit: ygurvitz, on Flickr

Yom Kippur is a strange day in Israel. As night falls the streets empty of cars, the incessant noise of car tires is replaced by the shouts of children bicycling on the roads along with roller skaters and young parents out with strollers. It is a stark contrast to the observance of the Jewish calendar’s most holy day by the religious, who are fasting and praying for atonement.

Having grown up in a Conservative Jewish home in the States, where plurality was the norm, it is not the non-observance of my secular neighbors that disturbs me, but the indifferent lack of consideration for those that do. It nevertheless, reflects our sorely divided society. Not having grown up in Israel it didn’t really hit me how wide the divide between religious and secular was until I spoke with an acquaintance who made it clear that their family would have nothing to do with fasting or prayer on Yom Kippur or any other time because of the religious. For her, no wishes for being inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year or wishing someone an easy fast, Yom Kippur greetings which are for me the distilled essence of the day, and a small light bulb lit up over my head about how non-observant Jewish Israelis view Judaism.

Even though the school system teaches the Old Testament and Jewish holidays from a young age, most Israelis come in contact with the state religion through the local rabbinate or religious council only at key points in their lives, namely birth, marriage and death, and they are met with the strictest, most intolerant form of Jewish observance. If you wish to do something other than the strict orthodox observance of those events, you cannot do so here. No other option is officially available, even with the apparent “official” adoption of other Jewish movements within the State.  Religion, like language,  however, has never been set in stone and clinging to a restricted, narrow form of observance forces the divide even wider, making each party more intransigent and intolerant. Reading the daily newspapers it also seems to me that this intolerance spills over into other aspects of our daily life. It’s a downward spiral.

As we head into this most solemn day on the Hebrew calendar, where introspection, meditation and prayer are mandated, as a Jew and as an Israeli, I will not only meditate on how I can become a better person in the coming year, I will also contemplate the abyss of “Sinat Achim” and hope with righteous actions that it can be bridged.

May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year and may your fast be an easy one.

(*Meaning, “Excuse me” or “Forgive me”. But, intonation is everything. Said with emphasis, the title of this post could also mean “Say what?!”)

Update: In the Moment’s blog also discusses the issue. Poll: Most Jewish Israelis dissatisfied with government policies on religion