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THE WORLD : DISPATCH FROM JERUSALEM

Yom Kippur brings peace and quiet

There is no traffic and all work is halted as the holiday reaches into every aspect of life in Israel.

October 10, 2008|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — On Thursday afternoon in West Jerusalem you could actually hear the birds chirping.

There were no motors roaring and no construction equipment pounding. The silence was almost startling.

Yom Kippur, which started Wednesday at sundown and ended Thursday, brought much of Israel to a once-a-year standstill.

The annual holiday, which means Day of Atonement, is marked with fasting and prayer by Jews worldwide. But here in the Jewish state, its effects reach into every aspect of life.

The entire country shuts down -- a fact that Egypt and Syria tried to exploit by launching a 1973 surprise attack in what is still known here as the Yom Kippur War.

All shops and restaurants close. Even the Ben Gurion International Airport shuts down for 24 hours. Authorities ban all vehicular traffic nationwide, making exceptions for predominantly Arab East Jerusalem and scattered Arab villages around the country.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, October 11, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Yom Kippur: A caption in Friday's Section A with an article about Yom Kippur in Israel said the photo showed skaters on an empty roadway in West Jerusalem. The location was Tel Aviv.

In Jerusalem, the distinction between the city's eastern and western halves can be measured in terms of commercial activity, ambient noise and exhaust fumes.

On Salahuddin Street, East Jerusalem's main commercial hub, it was business as usual. Stores and markets were open and cars cruised around normally.

But there were barricades at every intersection leading to the west side of town. Beyond those barricades was a completely different city.

This part of Jerusalem was transformed into a pedestrian and bicycle paradise. Families filled the streets, pushing strollers and wandering the empty roads at their leisure. Herds of playing children created a tricky slalom course for cyclists in several neighborhoods.

Every storefront was shuttered, including those that normally stay open on the Sabbath, which begins at sundown Friday and ends at nightfall Saturday.

Newcomers to Israel are often surprised to find that the Sabbath is a less stringent affair than they were expecting. Many observant Jews follow the rules banning driving, manual labor and even tasks as simple as writing. But a citywide network of convenience stores, restaurants and bars stay open.

On Hillel Street, the Chili Pizzeria normally attracts a Friday night crowd of Israeli youths, ordering pizza slices topped with pepperoni or bacon. But Chili was shuttered Thursday, as was every other store and restaurant in this normally Sabbath-proof patch of downtown.

With no cars on the roads, people reacted differently to their new environment. Some couldn't shake off ingrained habits and walked only on the sidewalks. Others seemed to take a specific pleasure in the once-a-year chance to stroll right down the center of the road. On King George Street, a pair of Asian tourists took turns photographing each other lying in the middle of the street.

A three-hour bicycle tour of the city witnessed exactly three vehicles in motion; one was a police car, the second an ambulance and the third seemed to be a resident driving up Jaffa Street in downtown and taking his chances that no one would throw anything at his car.

Those who get behind the wheel risk getting pulled over by police officers or being confronted by angry citizens.

In the northern city of Acre, which is a mix of Arabs and Jews, an Arab motorist was attacked while driving through a Jewish neighborhood Wednesday night. The assault touched off sectarian clashes that had to be suppressed by police using tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons.

--

ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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