HAIFA, Israel — After months of preparation, the Iraqi military, together with the U.S., Kurdish fighters, Shiite militias and the more than tacit cooperation of Iran, have started the long awaited operation to kick ISIS out of the second largest city in Iraq — Mosul. ISIS has held Mosul for the past two years, mostly enjoying the support of its Sunni majority population, and preparing it for just such an attack.
But I’m not going to talk about Mosul today.
In the meantime, the U.S. presidential campaign is getting more and more ugly. But I’m not going to talk about that today either, even though here in Israel it’s the only topic people want to talk to me about.
This column is about a phenomena so singular and unique that it can only happen in one country in the world — Israel.
Example – I don’t know of any other country where for 24 hours, it is illegal to drive a motor vehicle on any street or road, whether an unpaved street in an Arab village or Jewish kibbutz, the main arteries in cities and towns or the modern highways between Tel-Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Beer-Sheva, Elat, etc.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The phenomena is called “the Holidays,” and it’s the only time in the year where there is a cluster of major Jewish holidays, with different customs, that throws everyday life and routines into total organized chaos for three weeks.
As summer slowly draws to a close, you can sense a change of atmosphere and urgency that grows by the day. Schools start, but students only go for a few days a week.
The most common phrase you hear is “after the holidays,” meaning: because these are short weeks, and the weather is too nice to waste, let’s deal with this later.
I belong to the majority of Israeli Jews that define ourselves as “secular traditional,” meaning we don’t wear yarmulkes, don’t keep kosher, we drive on Saturday, stock up with frozen pita for Passover, and have no idea where the local synagogue is. Nevertheless, we celebrate Shabbat and the holidays in our own family traditions.
The first holiday was Rosh Hashanah. We celebrated it by having a big family dinner the evening before, explaining the various traditions to our grandkids and their friends (who took turns getting red in the face trying to blow my shofar). Next morning few Israelis went to synagogue (which is free here). Most got up early and headed to the National Parks, which were packed. We spent the day at the beach.
Ten days of shopping and wishing everyone (whether you knew them or not) an “easy fast,” and that they’re fate be sealed in the “right” book, brought us to Yom Kippur.
Another big family dinner …and then things got really unique … and very Israeli.
At about 6:30 p.m. all TV and radio stations went off the air. But you don’t turn off the sets. You leave them on and tuned to several TV and radio stations that go into “quiet mode.” Nothing will be broadcast until Yom Kippur ends … or Israel is attacked, in which case the broadcasts will start simultaneously with the countrywide air-raid sirens.
Around the same time all motor vehicle traffic on the roads, highways, streets and alleyways in Israel gradually draws to a stop as the last family members rush to get home.
Nobody … Jew, Arab, Muslim, Christian, Druze, Baha’i, atheist, Israeli, tourist, diplomat, king, friend or foe is allowed by law to drive on any road in Israel for 24 hours (unless Israel is at war). The only rare exceptions are ambulances, police and security vehicles with lights flashing.
And kids. With all the roads empty, by 7 p.m. thousands of children, teenagers and a few adults grabbed their bicycles, rollerblades and scooters and headed for the highways.
About 90 percent of all new bikes in Israel are sold in the weeks before Yom Kippur. That’s when I got my first new bike at age 10.
It’s surreal. Imagine you are standing in the middle of the day on the High Five overpass looking toward Central Expressway and LBJ and there is not one car on the roads. But hundreds of youngsters on bicycles are having fun peddling between Dallas and Richardson and beyond.
As for the holiness of the day, some Israelis fast or partially fast. But even those who don’t fast tend to mingle around local synagogues at the end of the day to hear the shofar blowing from the windows.
As Yom Kippur ended we built a Sukkah and two days later sat down in it for another big family dinner, and a weeklong holiday.
Believe me I’m all for tradition, and we and our extended family here had a lot of fun. But I can’t wait to get back to writing and briefing on less festive issues like Mosul, Iran, U.S. and Israeli politics, etc.
And I will…right “after the holidays.”
Agree or disagree, that’s my opinion.
Lt. Col. (IDF res) Gil Elan is President and CEO of the Southwest Jewish Congress, and a Middle East analyst. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Upcoming briefings and SWJC events are listed at: www.swjc.org
DISCLAIMER: Opinions are the writer’s, and do not represent SWJC directors, officers or members.