With Rosh Hashanah set to begin on Sunday night, Israelis are racing the clock – and each other – to prepare for the holiday.
Whether in the trendy neighborhood of Baka or the ultra-Orthodox section of Mea She’arim, Jerusalemites are gearing up for the new year.
While Rosh Hashanah means different things to different people, the holiday spirit seems to be universal.
"The atmosphere here is a lot like the Christmas season in America," noted one first-time visitor to the capital this week. "Everyone seems to be in a good mood and ready to spend money on gifts."
Unlike most Diaspora Jews, who confine their gift-giving to Chanukah, Israelis feel obliged to buy expensive New Year’s presents for their friends and family. The practice is so widespread, in fact, that most companies give their employees a cash bonus to offset the expense.
Though most shops seemed to have a steady stream of customers this week, many storekeepers complained that sales are way down from last year.
"I’ve been working here 18 years, and I’ve never seen such a slow holiday season," complained a clerk at the Hamashbir department store in the city center. "Sales were much better in August, even with people out of the country on vacation. I guess the high unemployment rate is filtering down to us," she said.
Business was a bit more brisk in Geula and Mea She’arim, where the ultra- Orthodox tend to shop. Women in wigs and long-sleeved dresses crowded into local shops to buy their children a new holiday outfit and a pair of shoes. The men, meanwhile, searched for a new black coat or a fur-lined hat to wear in the new year.
Those wishing to get a head start on Sukkot could already be seen shopping for lulavim and etrogim in shops along Mea She’arim Street. In one store, several Orthodox men compared green-colored etrogim for shape and texture.
"This is the best time to buy an etrog," one of the customers explained. "There are no crowds and there’s a big selection. In a couple of weeks the etrog will turn yellow – just in time for Sukkot."
One place that has been full of crowds is the Machaneh Yehuda open-air market. Considered the least expensive place in the city to buy food, tens of thousands of people jostle one another every day for a bagful of bright red apples and sweet round challahs.
Many of the customers are new immigrants from the former Soviet Union trying to stretch their shekels by buying at the shuk.
For Ludmilla, who immigrated to Israel nine months ago, Rosh Hashanah is a novel concept. "In the Soviet Union, the new year began in January. It’s strange to have a new year in the middle of September," she remarked.
Though she knew nothing about the Jewish holidays before making aliyah, she says that she is eager to learn about her new country and its customs.
"My 10-year-old son came home from school this week and told me about Rosh Hashanah and what it means. While I don’t understand all the fine points, I gather that it’s about new beginnings. That is something I can certainly relate to," she said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.