Learning to Love the Holidays in Israel

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A view of the holidays in Israel, from someone who has both lived here and there.

Recently, a friend of mine in Israel talked to his (Jewish) cousin in the United States during New Year’s in Israel. She proceeded to ask, “Is there a ball that drops? What do you do there?” 
 
So what do we do here? What does it mean that it is a new year? With three weeks of holidays, the country is alive and bursting with energy. Everyone wishes everyone a chag sameach; even the messages on the buses say shana tova. Families are out and about, going on hikes and picnicking in the park. The entire month of Tishrei has a vacation feel to it: There is only one full week of work in the month of September. If you need an answer about something from someone somewhere in the Jewish state, no problem — as long as you don’t mind waiting for it until after the chagim. 
 
In Jerusalem, the streets are filled with people, walking to services and to their holiday meals. On Yom Kippur, the highways are so empty that kids ride their bikes on them. People embrace their loved ones and start the New Year with a smile. The shuk is packed the days before the holiday begins and the streets are piled high with schach — the material that covers the sukkah. As you walk down the street on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, anyone with a shofar will double-check that you’ve heard it — we all must fulfill the mitzvah, after all.  
 
Walk into any synagogue between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at midnight and you’ll hear Selichot, the prayer service one must do to ask for forgiveness. The Kotel is full of people all night along, an experience you’ll never forget. 
 
On Sukkot, the traffic is terrible — everyone is traveling to the north or to the south. Museums offer free entrance on certain days, and every park smells like a barbecue. The holidays come to a close with Simchat Torah. Religious people dance with the Torah in the streets and secular people spend their days enjoying the company of family and friends.
 
For me, the holiday season in Israel used to mean homesickness. My first year, I couldn’t stop crying at dinner. My second and third Rosh Hashanah, I stayed on base and did guard duty. Last year, I was a guest at various meals, but did not spend it with my family. 
 
But this year, I spent part of my chag with my boyfriend and his family and part of it with my friends in Jerusalem. As an olah chadasha — a female immigrant — I do not have much family here. So now, four years after my aliyah from Philadelphia, I find myself bringing in the New Year with a new kind of family. It is a family I have built for myself and it is with them that I spend my holidays with in Israel. 
 
In Israel, it doesn’t matter if you are secular or religious. It doesn’t matter where you live or if you are American, sabra or Russian. From Rosh Hashanah until the end of Sukkot brings the entire country together as Am Yisrael like no other time of the year — ball drop or no. 
 
Born and raised in Bucks County, Arielle Adler moved to Israel after graduating from Boston University with a degree in history and education. After serving in the army for two years as a non-commissioned officer of education in the Israeli Navy, she moved to Jerusalem, where she now works in the world of Jewish nonprofits.

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