There’s something about an empty highway, a ribbon of black cutting through the night, that will move you deep in your soul. Kerouac knew this, as the miles of empty asphalt spooled under his wheels. But there is nothing as magical and spiritual as the empty highways of Israel on Yom Kippur, a silence that fills up every corner of your being.
As a journalist, covering the wounds and scars of this country, you can find yourself dripping in sarcasm and cynicism, questioning why you chose to move to this loud, angry, hate-filled place. Nothing is holy in the Holy Land: everything is political, steeped in divisive conflict. Everything you say or write will somehow cause anger, heartache, hatred.
Yom Kippur is not free from conflicts. There are the teenagers in Jerusalem who yearly throw rocks at Arab cars on Hebron Road, and there were the 2008 riots in Acre when an Arab man drove through a religious Jewish neighborhood blaring music.
During the past two years, Yom Kippur also coincided with Eid al-Adha, when Muslims typically drive from family party to family party, meaning that just as the Jews stop driving, eating and listening to music for religious reasons, the Muslims did the exact opposite. This usually happens once ever 33 years, but quirks of the Jewish leap year and the fact that the faiths use different lunar calendars meant it happened twice in a row in 2014 and 2015. Due to the confluence of the holidays, religious and interfaith leaders tried to encourage both sides to be tolerant of their neighbors in unprecedented statements from Jewish and Muslim leaders.
But aside from the sporadic incidences of rock throwing and riots, Yom Kippur is separate from the rest of a year, alone on a pedestal. The fact that almost no Jewish Israelis drive on Yom Kippur shocks me every year. Really? No one drives? Israelis hold nothing sacred. Except, perhaps, this.
For one day a year, everyone stops. The roads that we hurry down become empty scrolls, open to adventures and play.
In Tel Aviv, it becomes the holiday of the bicycle.
At night, the Ayalon highway transforms from a gridlock of angst to a festival fairground. Aside from the occasional hospital shuttle or security vehicle, these roads, which are so hostile to pedestrians during the year, return to the people. Groups of people play poker in the right-hand lane, others do yoga under the sign directing traffic to Holon. In an underground passageway, teenagers write their names in the soot that has built up on the walls.
During the day, the highway becomes a river of people biking and walking. Parents teach their children how to ride bikes for the first time. Couples rollerblade down the middle of the street holding hands. The buildings that rise on either side of the highway seem to shrink down to human size, now that people are no longer ensconced in their vehicles. With no tinted windows and air conditioning to separate us, people mingle freely on the roadways, greeting neighbors, meeting up with friends.
This is my favorite day of the year in Israel, when cars are gone and people become masters of the roads, when there is silence that unfurls across the country. There is finally a chance to stop and breathe, to take stock of the year that has passed, and see the beauty that still lives underneath all of the smog.
Last year after Kol Nidre services in Jerusalem I biked back to Tel Aviv, my own private prayer through the pedals, wordless but spiritual just the same. The magical descent after the Kiryat Ya’arim exit took my breath away: I coasted down and down, picking up speed, weaving in between the dotted white lines of the lanes, completely, utterly alone.
Among the 8 million people in this country, all of them breathing, screaming, texting, driving, living every day, suddenly it was just me on Route 1: just me pedaling alone under the orange light. Sometimes when a street light was out I could stop in the puddle of darkness and see more stars than I ever expected to see in the center of Israel. In the silence, I saw mice and rats and heard wolves and a wild boar, a veritable safari along the highway.
The next day in my neighborhood in South Tel Aviv I hopscotched between synagogues: Moroccan, Afghani, Iraqi, Persian, Ashkenazi, listening to my neighbors pray with all their soul and all their being, then biked across Tel Aviv to see so many families and children outside in the streets, wading in the HaBima fountain or playing tag along the yellow lines of Bograshov Street.
Pedaling between the worlds of Israel, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, religious and secular, helps me sweep away the cobwebs of this difficult land, uncovering the beauty inscribed in each place.
As dusk falls at the end of Yom Kippur, the cars will begin to return to the roads, the silence will fade away to the din of normal life. Taxis will honk and buses will screech, people will yell at each other to get out of the way. The bikes and pedestrians will retreat to the side and the vehicles will again assert their dominance, as the high-rises along the highway stretch back up toward impossible heights.
I will hang up my bike helmet next to the door and turn on my phone, to immerse myself back in the never-ending news cycle.
But the silence will stay inside of me, the memory of a day that means so many different things to different people, but means something to almost everyone. And it gives me strength until the next Yom Kippur, when the streets will be empty and the silence will reign once again.
The skies were pure and the earth was silent, and all the streets were clean, and a new wind was fluttering across the expanse of the world.
— Shai Agnon, “The Days of Awe”