Why I'm Terrified of Yom Kippur

My association with the Jewish Day of Atonement is distress, destruction and death; so why do I yearn to be back in Jerusalem right now?

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An illustration showing Sayed Kashua with a town and a mosque in the background. A helicopter hovers above.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

For some unknown reason, I’ve started to imagine Israel as a lost paradise. It comes in waves, fits unrelated to day-to-day events or to changes that have occurred in my way of life here. Sometimes I attribute the spurts of nostalgia to the holidays. I have the feeling that the current fit – the desire to return to Israel – began with the Feast of Sacrifice and will peak on Yom Kippur.

I was always afraid of the Days of Awe. I first heard about them when I was 15. I’d just arrived at boarding school, and as I wrote once when I was much younger, that first week in Jerusalem constituted the hardest seven days of my life. In the meantime, the years have passed and wars followed hard on the heels of other various battles, the weeks turned into tough months, and I can no longer single out one period as the hardest of my life.

I remember how happy I was on the day I discovered Rosh Hashanah for the first time. It was my first break from boarding school, and I knew that I was packing my few belongings and returning to Tira after just two weeks of school in Jerusalem and never going back. I missed home so much, I cried so much at boarding school. Oh, God, I cried everywhere: in the classroom, in the dining room, in my dorm and on the sports field. Sometimes I wonder how people could ignore my distress, apparently seeing it as legitimate in light of the fact that I was away from home and finding it difficult to adjust to a new, unfamiliar life. That’s also when I first heard about the meaning of Yom Kippur. A religious roommate told me that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the fate of all beings is decided in the heavenly court: who shall live and who shall die.

During that break, I went back to my high school in Tira. I had no accent, the students didn’t think my clothes were funny, no one asked where I came from and I didn’t have to explain who I was. Still, when the time came to go back to boarding school, I packed my bags again and left Tira, with the feeling that my fate had been sealed and it was out of my hands.

Later, I learned that the 1973 October War was called the Yom Kippur War, and when I grew up I was slightly less fearful of God’s wrath.

And in 2000, when I was already a father and a war broke out and many were killed, I cried nonstop: at home, at the newspaper’s offices, on the street and at the funerals of those who were killed. I was in a bad way, but no one wanted to see the signs. In that week I was in Wadi Ara, Acre, Nazareth and Sakhnin, and I wrote about people who thought they were citizens who were allowed to demonstrate against the fact that their world was crashing down in the wake of events in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

During that week, I saw how the media mobilized with all its might; in an instant everyone was divided into camps and we had become sworn enemies. Leftist radio presenters began their programs with reports about masked Israeli Arabs, expressed contrition for having harbored the delusion that the Arabs could be trusted, and admitted they had to discard the images deeply rooted in their mind about the character of the Arab. Politicians whom we’d considered moderates explained the killing, backing up the brave police officers who were waging a battle for their lives and homes.

People sat there and talked about “crushing them with bulldozers.” They said Wadi Ara was an important route through which tanks and trucks would have to pass during a war with Syria – although there was no war with Syria at the time. At the funerals I reported on, I saw the sadness, the frustration and the shock of a generation that experienced the crisis of its citizenship for the first time, and saw the power of bottomless hate.

And it was between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in the wake of an article I published, that I received explicit threats for the first time. “May your name be blotted out, we’ll kill your daughter” – and she was just a month old. The editor said that the situation in Jerusalem was sensitive and I mustn’t take risks.

We went to Tira, which in those days was a refuge, and stared at the television screen dumbstruck, cowering at the severity of the decree. On Yom Kippur, when the screen went blank, we hoped, as always in war, that the fact it was a holy day, or a downpour or some snow would help lower the flames. Then we started to hear rumors from friends up north about attacks by Jews from Upper Nazareth, accompanied by police, following the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service. There were panicky phone calls about shootings with live ammunition and about many casualties. Friends in Beit Safafa in Jerusalem related that their homes were under attack from Jewish neighbors from Patt.

Without the radio, without the news, the feeling of suffocation mounted. We didn’t know whether Tira was about to crushed by bulldozers, had no way of knowing what was being planned. I remember how I hugged my daughter, who smiled, and how I tried to project with all my might a feeling of calm and tranquility, even though I was scared then like I’d never been scared before. I thought about how I would protect the baby girl, where I would hide her when they approached, how I would defend her against the rioters. We were afraid, we’d become monsters to be boycotted. Another generation felt the rod of the masters, and we could only hope that winter and time would heal the wounds.

Now we’re in Illinois, amid the Days of Awe, and soon Yom Kippur will come, when people’s fates are sealed without their being able to defend themselves in court. And without being able to explain rationally why I miss Jerusalem and Tira so much, I hope that the decree for me and my family won’t be to be numbered among the refugees.

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