(September 30, 2015 / JNS)
This year was my very first Yom Kippur in Israel. The experience was in some ways similar to Yom Kippur in the U.S., but unsurprisingly different in other ways.
In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, my ulpan class read in Hebrew about the holiday and went around saying “sorry” for transgressions committed against each other. Channeling my inner Hebrew school days, I apologized to the class for speaking to my friend Naomi during class—and for doing so in English. We are no longer allowed to sit next to each other because we have too much fun chatting when we should be listening. That much hasn’t changed since my Hebrew school days. At least this time around I can conjugate in Hebrew while interrupting the class!
On the eve of Yom Kippur, I called my family to apologize for past transgressions. I finished eating dinner and guzzling water at around 6 p.m. so we could leave for the Kol Nidre services. Walking as a group to the Ashkenazi shul (a traditional synagogue that follows the Eastern European traditions), we saw dozens of kids and adults riding their bikes around on the streets, which is apparently a Yom Kippur tradition for secular Israelis.
At shul the next day, some of the prayers and tunes were familiar—back in Seattle, my family goes to a Conservative synagogue that follows more or less the same traditional Hebrew service. Outside of Israel, at the end of services we say “L’shana haba’a b’Yerushalayim,” meaning “Next year in Jerusalem!” But this year, we were in Jerusalem! So at the end of the service, after the final shofar blast, we proclaimed instead, “L’shana haba’a b’Yerushalayim habenuya”—next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem! By adding the word “rebuilt,” we are expressing not only the desire to be in Jerusalem physically, but we should be here with a rebuilt Temple, meaning with the coming of the Messiah.
We repeated this verse several times, and with each one, the words became louder and stronger. The last one was so powerful that it gave me goosebumps and I started to tear up.
The topic of discussion on the walk back to ulpan was, “If you could eat anything right now, what would it be?” Our answers spanned the globe, from rice and beans from Brazil, fresh sushi from Japan, to a juicy American hamburger. Unfortunately, none of us got our wishes—the ulpan served some schnitzel and kube (meatballs), very average Israeli foods, which might have appealed only to a tourist.
Shortly after Yom Kippur is Sukkot, the holiday where Jews build a sukkah outdoors, which kind of looks like a decorated hut/booth covered with leaves as the roof. The tradition is to “dwell” (eat and sleep) in the sukkah. In America, Sukkot begins with a two-day Yom Tov, a festival during which work is not permitted, similar to Shabbat. However, in Israel, Yom Tov is only one day. An integral symbol of Sukkot is the lulav, a bundle of branches from the date palm, myrtle and willow trees, together with an etrog (citron, looks like a weird lemon). Rabbis can often be seen on the street before Sukkot inspecting the etrogs for imperfections.
Back in the U.S., I had only seen one sukkah at a time. Jews built them at their homes, but because Jews are so spread out in Seattle, you would never expect to see more than one while standing in one place. But in Israel, the sukkot are everywhere—on the streets, outside of restaurants, on people’s balconies, everywhere. It looks like a scene from “Ushpizin,” a highly recommended Israeli movie about Sukkot.
Experiencing Yom Kippur and Sukkot in Israel underscored how special a place this is. I had never heard people yearn for the rebuilding of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur because in the diaspora, we yearn just to be in the city of Jerusalem. But now I’m here in the Jewish state, where you see a dozen sukkot on the same street. And now I realize how incredibly special that is.
Last Shabbat, someone told me that there are only three mitzvot (commandments) that involve one’s whole body. The first is observing Shabbat. We prepare food, light candles, drink wine, eat a festive meal, rest, and pray. The second is building a sukkah. We erect and decorate three “walls” with a table inside and a ceiling of leaves. And the third is being in the Land of Israel. This coming Shabbat, I will have the opportunity to do all three at once. I hope everyone will someday have the opportunity fulfill all three of these amazing mitzvot at once and see more than one sukkah at a time. In the meantime, have a happy and healthy Sukkot, wherever you may be.
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought and the author of the new “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied International Relations and Jewish Studies. She was published in USA Today and Forbes after writing about her experiences in Israel last summer. Follow her aliyah column on JNS.org, Facebook, and Instagram.