The day Israel has no cars

For thoroughly secular Israelis, Yom Kippur is not so much a day of atonement as it is a national car-free day. Even in secular Tel Aviv, cars are parked for the holiday and the streets fall silent – of engine noise, that is. On Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv, and elsewhere around Israel, you can hear the birds, the wind through the trees, children playing in their gardens and the whoosh of bicycles going to and fro.

Orna Coussin writes in Ha’aretz:

It’s a mitzvah to leave the house on this day and roam the streets, to meet and be met, to see and be seen, to feel the stone and the asphalt, to take the measure of the roads, to get to know the city’s open areas. Because for thoroughly secular folks like me, Yom Kippur isn’t a day that atones for the sins of man against God (called hamakom in Hebrew, literally “the place”), but it surely is a day that connects man and place.

And now, this year more than ever, it makes sense to proclaim Yom Kippur an international day for pedestrians. Because a tremendously influential and historic event took place this week exactly 100 years ago: In October 1908, the first Model T rolled out of the Ford plant in Detroit, and thereafter the human race would never be the same…

How fortunate we are in Tel Aviv: We have Yom Kippur. Last year, on Yom Kippur, carbon monoxide levels fell from 205 parts per billion, on the day prior to the holiday, to just 2 parts per billion at its height – a phenomenon unmatched anywhere in the world. And pollution isn’t the only thing that’s reduced. So is stress and rushing around and grim purposefulness. You go out into the street and see the city in its nakedness, which is to say, in its simple beauty. Comprised entirely of short stretches of road, street corners, turns and stops. The neighborhood synagogue is necessarily nearby, since one isn’t supposed to travel on Shabbat and holidays. But in a good city, you have everything you need nearby and need not ride in a car to get there: to the pub and the cafe, the laundry and the grocery, the post office and the bank. Everything is close by, everything is plentiful and varied, no one feels like an alienated stranger here, everyone is different and everyone fits in, everything is outside, but nothing is “out.”

Walking in the city refreshes the soul, or redirects one’s attention from the news on the radio and the traffic on the street and the assembly-line atmosphere of the office and the mall inward toward the soul. Walking also opens up your eyes to your surroundings. One can roam the city in the spirit of Walter Benjamin, who wrote in praise of the urban wanderer who is both apart and near, observant and closely attuned. Or, say, in the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, who wrote of the marvels of walking and thinking, and of the thoughts that are formed while in motion, and the freedom that comes with the lack of a distinct purpose. But this year one may also wander the streets in a kind of protest. For Yom Kippur alone is not sufficient to atone for the sins between man and place; but one can at least get out there and make a start.

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