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Life in Israel - Part 3 - A Jewish state

February 23, 2016

The State of Israel is a Jewish state. I don't want to enter into the ideological debate around this issue, just saying that I, personally, am an atheist, so religion has no meaning for me. For me, Judaism is a culture, just as the French nation has French culture and the Chinese have Chinese culture, so I think that the Jewish people have the right to a state, regardless of religion, but in a historical and cultural context. Factually, there is a link between the State of Israel and the Jewish people throughout ancient and modern history.



The fact is that today, in Israel, most of the population is Jewish, which means that, unlike most countries in the world, the calendar is based on the Hebrew calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar. This has a very large impact on my books: when I'm writing the story, the timeline is based on the Hebrew calendar. My week, for example, starts on Sunday and ends on Saturday, and the holidays are the Jewish holidays.



Last New Year's Eve (end of 2014) I visited a Yugoslavian guy who had moved to Israel. In August this year, I turned forty and it was the first time in my life that I celebrated New Year's Eve. Just as it was strange for me to enter an apartment decorated with golden decorations and a Christmas tree, it was strange for the Yugoslavian to realize that, in Israel, it wasn’t a holiday and that the next day was a working day.


(That's me in the picture)










On the other hand, there are holidays in Israel which are unique to Israel. Most of the population in Israel is not religious and not all holidays are religious holidays. Moreover, Jews around the world mark the religious holidays as well, but in a place like Israel, where the majority of the population is Jewish, holidays have a unique character.


The Hebrew calendar, like the Gregorian calendar, has twelve months. Months in Judaism relate to the moon. The full moon always symbolizes the middle of the Hebrew month. Therefore, every few years, there’s a leap year, which means a year in which there are thirteen months.



In Judaism, every day actually begins the night before that date. Thus, for example, Jews mark the Sabbath day and virtually all Jewish holidays from the night before. Friday night is actually called Sabbath Evening. I admit, I’m not widely traveled and have no idea how people live in other places - but, according to Israelis who’ve lived elsewhere, the atmosphere in Israel on Fridays, Saturdays and holidays, you just don’t get anywhere else. All businesses are closed during Sabbaths (from Friday noon) by law. In many parts of the world, many businesses are closed on holidays and Sundays, but in Israel, except for entertainment businesses (restaurants, theaters, cinemas, etc.) it is forbidden, by law, to open. A limited number of businesses open on Saturdays and holidays (and pay the fines they incur as a result of doing so), but the vast majority just close. The major malls are closed from Friday afternoon to Saturday night - when the Sabbath ends and Sunday actually starts. Israelis go to the markets to stock up on food for the family on Fridays and the days before the holidays. In the afternoon, when the businesses are slowly closing, the traffic dwindles and there’s a pleasant feeling of peace and serenity. In the evening, especially on the eve of the holidays, people go out and return from the synagogues, dressed in white shirts. Not everyone’s religious, but there’s a cultural aspect to it, too. Religious people will go about on foot, while the non-religious will drive to see their relatives. On holiday evenings and Saturday evenings, most Israelis dine with their families, enjoying blessings over wine and the bread before the meal (Kiddush).




The Jewish year begins in the fall. Around September or October, Jews mark the Jewish New Year with a two-day holiday.  The tenth day in the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). This is the holiest day for Jews. Most Jews, even those who are not religious, go to the synagogues and many Jews fast on this day. The atmosphere on the streets is amazing. Unlike other holidays, when only religious Jews don’t travel by car, on Yom Kippur, everyone avoids driving. Central Tel Aviv is as quiet as a peaceful little village. There’s no TV (on Israeli channels). All is very silent. The children, of course, take advantage of the day and for children, Yom Kippur is the official bike festival.


 The fourteenth day of the Jewish year is Sukkot. This is a holiday where Jews build arbors in their backyards, in which they tend to eat and sleep. If you visit a Jewish neighborhood anywhere in the world, you’ll find the same ‘Sukkot,’ but in Israel, for a week, every yard has arbors. Two days of the week of Sukkot are true holidays with all the businesses closed. On the other five days there’s no prohibition on work.

(In the picture: my parents' back yard on Sukot)



In the first Hebrew month, there are many holidays, so it’s also called the ‘holiday month.’



The next holiday on the Jewish calendar is Hanukkah. This holiday is relatively familiar to non-Jews because it’s usually associated with the Christmas period. This is an eight-day holiday in which Jews light the Hanukkah candles every day. This holiday comes from Jewish culture and not the bible, so most businesses are open and most people go to work as usual. The education system closes down, however – which, of course, raises the ire of many parents.





Around February or March, we mark the Feast of Purim – the Jewish version of Halloween, where children and many adults dress up. This, too, is a holiday when people generally work, but the schools are closed. Since this is only one day, many businesses decide to close on this day and allow employees to participate in the Purim parades around the various cities.


(my sun - Purim 2015)












Exactly one month after Purim, we mark Passover. Like Sukkot, this is also a seven-day holiday: two days of holiday, and five days during which work goes on. This holiday marks the story of the Exodus. Many Jews, even those who aren’t religious, refrain from eating bread on these days.


The next holiday is my favorite holiday of the year. Two weeks after the end of Passover, Israel celebrates Israel's Independence Day. This is an Israeli - not a Jewish - holiday. Israel is, of course, not the only country to celebrate Independence Day, but I don’t know how many other countries commemorate the National Memorial Day just a day before Independence Day. Because Israel’s such a young country, and due to the fact that, unfortunately, there’s no peace with many of the countries that surround us, Memorial Day in Israel is a painful day that touches almost every family in Israel. (In my family, my husband's uncle was killed in one of Israel's wars, and my father is a disabled war veteran.) There is always a tense atmosphere in this transition between grief and joy. Almost every year, there’s a requirement to change the Memorial Day. I, personally, have a hard time deciding on the issue.



A month after the first day of Passover, we mark Lag B'Omer. Another cultural, rather than religious holiday, the children traditionally light bonfires. In the seventies, when I was a child, the State of Israel was still young, and even though I grew up in a big city, there were a lot of open spaces in the area where I grew up. We all celebrated Lag B'Omer together in those open areas. Today, Tel Aviv is very crowded and there are very few open spaces. I’m a little sad that my child can't experience Lag B'Omer as I experienced it, but that's the price paid in a developing country. Today, people take turns in the available spaces, and kids light bonfires for a whole week since there’s not enough room for everyone on the holiday itself.



The last holiday on the Jewish calendar is a religious holiday, from the bible. Its name is ‘Shavuot’ (‘weeks’ in Hebrew) and is celebrated exactly seven weeks after Passover, hence its name. This is a holiday from the Torah and its origin is agricultural. Shavuot celebrates the harvest and is also called the ‘holiday of firstborns.’ Many children go about with garlands on their heads and it’s customary to eat dairy foods during the holiday meals.




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