'Judaism Demands You Study Yourself': A Jewish Yom Kippur Without God

Coming back for Yom Kippur after babysitting for a friend who went to Burning Man; two young Israel head to Greece to party before the draft

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Or Chen Zemel, 28, from Moshav Yogev; arriving from Los Angeles
Or Chen Zemel, 28, from Moshav Yogev; arriving from Los AngelesCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Or Chen Zemel, 28, from Moshav Yogev; arriving from Los Angeles

Hello, can I ask what you did on your trip?

Yes. I went to visit a girlfriend who had a baby not long ago. I spent a month with her. She went to Burning Man for a week and I looked after the baby, who’s 3 months old, and when she got back I traveled a bit. Mostly in Vegas and San Diego. It was terrific.

Is it terrific to look after a three-month-old?

Sure. You can do everything with them; we had a very productive week. Except that I was in an accident with him on the third day and I didn’t drive after that – I only used Uber. It’s amazing ... It was my first time in the U.S. And it wasn’t, and won’t be, among my top 10 [travel] preferences.

What do you do in Israel?

I’m a communications clinician student at the University of Haifa. I already have a B.A. in behavioral sciences. But this degree gives me a profession, and necessitates an additional degree.

Tomer (the photographer): And you also went to school in Ein Prat, or at least you have their backpack.

True. I did Elul there. Amazing.

Hang on, what is Ein Prat?

There are secular midrashot [study institutes] in Israel for deepening one’s knowledge of Judaism, which are not under the control of the religious population. Ein Prat is one; it’s based in Alon, near Kfar Adumim [in the West Bank]. Ein Prat has all kinds of programs and a pre-army course. It’s also a community; after a program, you can decide whether to join it. There are also places in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Be’er Sheva where people meet and study a range of subjects – not necessarily religious.

What program did you participate in?

Four years ago, I did one called Elul there. It’s mainly for university students, held in the [Hebrew] month of Elul, during the break between academic years. Forty days in boarding-school conditions; it’s hard to explain. But since then, whenever Elul arrives, I feel remnants from then rising within me.

What does a typical day look like, for example?

It’s a month of study, of deepening knowledge, of getting into yourself slowly. A month in which you build yourself; each person individually and whatever works for him. The same goes for the texts we read, too.

What interested you?

S.Y. Agnon has quite a few texts about Yom Kippur, which ends the month [of study]. I also like Yehuda Amichai; it’s all rooted, down to earth. But I think the answers are not in the texts but within each person. And at the end there is – even if I exclude God from the picture – Yom Kippur.

Why “exclude,” isn’t this a way of drawing closer to Judaism?

Yes, but it’s not a matter of becoming religiously observant. Judaism in general demands that you study yourself and those around you. To live in peace with the world and yourself. In Elul you explore. Move into the state of mind of a thinking person. I come from a traditionalist Jerusalem home. I like Judaism and always have. But Judaism isn’t God, from my point of view. The Chief Rabbinate is not the only face of Judaism. And Ein Prat is a community that offers tikkun [repair, healing].

Do people study alone or together in Ein Prat?

In Elul you’re always in a group, and you sleep in a room with people who become lifelong friends. Seclusion when learning is something you sometimes force on yourself. Judaism also says that you need solitude.

So this past Elul you were in seclusion with a baby.

To be with a baby is definitely not to be in solitude. But the Elul thing was in my head. And as I said to my friend: It’s special that I’m coming to you this month. It’s a month when you challenge yourself, change things. And now I’ve traveled alone during Elul; I’d never done that. A new experience. It’s something you can be afraid of and forgo, but that’s not recommended in Elul.

What is recommended for Elul?

Not to remain in the comfort zone. To step out of yourself. It doesn’t have to be extravagant; it can be something minor. Maybe you’re drawn to something, something you’re familiar with. Like, maybe I’ll stay with my girlfriend and not go to San Diego alone, because it’s scary.

Was it scary in San Diego?

No. But I’d never done it before. It was a first-time experience, but by the same token I could have not experienced it. In a letter I wrote my friend when I left, I wrote that it was a month in which I’d learned so much, even if it can’t be described in words.

Or Abutbul, 18, left, and Binov Hazan, 18, from Be’er Sheva; flying to CreteCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Or Abutbul, 18, left, and Binov Hazan, 18, from Be’er Sheva; flying to Crete

Hello, the braids are stunning.

Binov: We had them done today, she’s been so excited about it.

Why are you going to Crete?

Binov: We finished high school, and it’s a destination for parties and young people. To find a British guy.

Good luck. Were you both in the same class?

Or: We’re friends from school, not from the same class.

How were the matriculation exams?

Binov: Terrific. Easy. Even though we screwed the reform.

What do you mean?

Or: We were part of the new reform: We did matric exams only in 11th and 12th grades.

Binov: And the whole burden fell on the 11th: two days – matric; another two days – matric; another two days – matric. Lots of pressure.

Or: But we already have some of the grades.

Binov: I got 60 in civics. What do I care? I passed.

And what have you both been doing since then?

Or: Lots of partying.

Binov: Lots of vodka.

Or: Clubs.

Binov: Nafis, Hasifriya, Dixie, Forum, Arabica. I’m into Be’er Sheva. Ask for Binov, everyone knows me there.

Where did you get the money for the trip?

Or: We saved up for the flight by ourselves, we had jobs.

Binov: I’m a waitress and she’s an office worker.

Or: I have a more prestigious job, I wear an earphone!

Binov: I’m a waitress at Odyssey. Every party-goer knows it.

Or: At this point, you should write: Ha, ha, ha.

What’s Odyssey?

Binov: It’s a banquet hall that seats 900 people. I’ve worked there for a year and a half. All night.

Is it hard?

Binov: No. Before that I waitressed at Bianca. At Bianca the roof collapsed. Really rough.

Did the roof really collapse?

Binov: Yes.

Or: I’ve been working four months. Bezeq, you know – with customer: “Hello, Or speaking.”

Binov: Write that she went out with the manager in order to get a raise.

Or: No! I have a female manager. She’s just yakking. People won’t believe me after this because of you, because it will be in the paper! (They laugh)

Binov: I’ve been saving up until now for this trip. And also for the army, so I’ll have money to live on. I want to look after myself. Not ask my parents. I’ve been independent since I was 14. Note that. So you won’t think I’m some lightweight.

Or: Not that it would be impossible for them to give money to us – it wouldn’t.

Binov: But there are a great many demands, and it’s impossible for my parents to pay for everything.

Or: There are times when it’s not nice to ask, it’s too much. If I’ve already asked for 250 [shekels], I won’t ask for more, it’s not pleasant.

Binov: It’s for taxis, clothes, it’s big money.

Do you enjoy earning money by yourselves?

Binov: It’s incredible fun.

Or: We buy what we want and don’t have to settle accounts with anyone else, because it’s ours.

Binov: My mom is very proud of me.

Or: And I also can help out sometimes. For example, there are situations when my brother needs money, so I’ll give him some to make things easier for my family.

How long are you going away for?

Or: For a week, Sunday to Sunday. When we arrive, an agent will be waiting for us. He’ll take us to the hotel. We got a flight through Magic Carpet.

Binov: The partying starts and that’s that. And then I start to get drunk and I don’t know my name anymore.

What did you pack?

Binov: Plenty of clothes that are incredibly revealing.

Or: In the store she asked, “Do you have low-cut?”

What do your parents say about the trip?

Or: My mother really pushed for me to go. It was important for her that I have a good time before the army, because afterward I won’t be able to do anything.

You’ve already thought about the army?

Or: I want to go to the prisons service, because it’s a career.

The prisons service – seriously?

Or: It’s permanent work. I’ll find my future. What else is there outside?

What about school?

Or: I don’t relate to that; [I did] a full matriculation and all that, but it’s not for me.

Binov: My dad is pretty uptight. He’s worried because [we are going to] a foreign country and the situation isn’t great. A dad’s worries. But I’ll be a millionaire after the army.

How’s that?

Binov: I’m not telling you, you’re too clever. One of these days, I’ll be living next door to the prime minister! But in the meantime I’ve got the army on my shoulders. I’ll be a commanding officer. I’m tough as nails – don’t get the wrong impression.