Tel Aviv Diary: Yom Kippur and Everyone Gets On Their Bike

Children ride their bicycles in an empty street in Jerusalem during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur on September 23. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest of Jewish holidays, when observant Jews atone for the sins of the past year. Traffic is not allowed during the 25-hour period. Ammar Awad/Reuters

This new Jewish year has not gotten off to a very good beginning in Israel. One well-known Israeli political commentator tweeted asking if we could get a mulligan—a do-over—for the start of the year. Stoning and firebombing have been regular occurrences in Jerusalem, while rockets have been fired (a number of times) on southern Israel from Gaza by groups claiming affiliation with ISIS.

To complicate matters, in the north the Russians have been rushing troops to Syria (in a desperate attempt to prop up the Bashar Assad regime), prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hastily fly to Moscow with top army commanders to ensure Israel and Russia do not inadvertently become involved in a confrontation.

As is tradition, on the 10th day of this New Year everything in Israel came to a halt—while Israelis and Jews worldwide observed Yom Kippur, the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar. In Jerusalem and many other parts of the country, people spent the day in synagogue, fasting, in reflective prayer, often asking for forgiveness for their transgressions, real or perceived, of the year before. In the more secular Tel Aviv, some residents did indeed spend the day in one of the city's synagogues (which number almost 800 large and small).

However, most in Tel Aviv celebrated the day in what has become a major citywide tradition—cycling the roads of the city. For whether Israelis are religious, or not, Yom Kippur is the one day when all stores and restaurants are closed. More significantly, it is the one day when no one drives. On Yom Kippur, the perpetually teeming roads of Tel Aviv are silent—for 25 hours—turning the city into a bicyclist's paradise.

Today's temperature at noon in Tel Aviv was 99 degrees. This is unseasonably hot and not exactly optimal weather either for those fasting or cycling. The heat did not deter those who were fasting. However, while last night the streets were filled with bikers of all ages (thousands took to the streets—whole families—each member with their own bicycle), during the day the streets were much more quiet.

For the youngsters of Tel Aviv, last night provided the opportunity to travel long distances on empty highways and get together with friends, or to merely enjoy a night free from the danger and noise of cars and buses. As an additional benefit, during the Day of Atonement, pollution in Tel Aviv drops to its lowest level of the year.

To some in Tel Aviv, Yom Kippur is actually their favorite holiday. It is a unique time when a modern city falls silent; when not a car, nor bus, nor truck can be heard. One only hears the quiet hum emanating from the electric bikes that have become popular in this city.

To some—those old enough to have lived through the Yom Kippur War 42 years ago—the day will always have some profoundly sad memories. However, most Tel Aviv residents are too young to remember that distant war.

They say Tel Aviv is a bubble. On Yom Kippur that bubble is complete.

Multimedia historian Marc Schulman blogs at