How to celebrate the High Holidays like a true Israeli

Photo: Celebrate the holidays like a true Israeli family. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90

By Naama Barak

You’d think that with summer finally being over and the kids firmly placed back in school, life would be back on track here in Israel. If only.

This is because we’re gearing up toward one of the most complex periods of the Jewish calendar – the chagim, otherwise known as the High Holidays, comprised of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

And while in New York or London this simply means taking a few days off work and consuming a few pieces too many of honey cake, things are much more complicated in the Holy Land. So should you wish to celebrate the High Holidays like a true Israeli, you might want to use the following guidelines.

  1. Overeat, obviously

Fine. The Jewish tradition of overeating isn’t confined to the High Holidays or to Israel. But the combination of the two is downright lethal. Not only are Israelis staring down at endless yet obligatory chag dinners, but they also have to contend with the fact that everyone is on vacation, free to invite them over for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For a whole month.

Our suggestion: don’t even bother fighting it. Have your cake and eat it too. After all, you can work it all off once the holidays are over (more on that later).

  1. Offend at least one branch of the family

One of the great things about Israel is how small it is, meaning that no matter how far away your family lives it’s not such a huge effort to see them.

The thing is, this also means that your family expects you to celebrate all the chagim with them. Unfortunately, your in-laws expect you to do exactly the same. The result: Most Israelis mortally offend one side of the family on an annual basis by eating chag dinner with the other.

To avoid this conundrum, Israelis face three possible choices. One is to simply ignore any passive-aggressive comments made during the month of Tishrei. The other is to promise the neglected side of the family that you’ll celebrate Passover with them. And the third is to wisely decide that you’re celebrating the Jewish New Year in Thailand. Alone.

  1. Observe Yom Kippur in the best possible way for you

Outside of the Holy Land, Yom Kippur is a pretty somber affair that usually includes fasting, repentance and a day spent in shul. But over here in Israel that’s not quite the case. Sure, lots of people do spend the day according to Jewish law. But loads of others don’t.

Some Israelis observe the High Holidays according to Jewish law, while others follow their own traditions. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90

Instead, they make use of the ultimate day of rest in the country, during which roads are empty, TV channels don’t work and no one picks up the phone. This means gangs of kids taking over empty roads on their bikes, adults catching up on their Netflix shows (behind closed curtains, so as not to offend the neighbors) or families spending the day camping. A truly Israeli way is to mix this all – shul in the evening and bikes in the morning.

Lots of Israeli children make use of the empty roads to ride their bikes on Yom Kippur. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90
  1. Get all emotional while digging up sukkah decorations

Handmade sukkah decorations are cherished items in Israel. Photo by Liatsh via

The Jewish festival of Sukkot is marked by eating your meals and even sleeping in a sukkah, the makeshift hut reminiscent of the ones used by ancient Israelites on their journey through the desert to the Holy Land.

And while we’re guessing that the ancient Israelites didn’t care much for décor, nowadays it’s very serious business that entails kindergarten kids slaving away for weeks creating sukkah decorations for their families. No matter what the finished product looks like, it will be cherished for generations to come.

So don’t be surprised to see otherwise tough sabras getting all emotional whipping out their (now adult) kids’ handmade creations.Even though they’re all faded and gross, they’re still very special – so don’t forget to mention how lovely they are.

  1. Go hiking, then curse yourself

The holiday season is perfect for hiking. Unfortunately the whole of Israel thinks the same. Photo by Shutterstock

The High Holiday season in Israel is one of the nicest ones in terms of the weather. Coupled with the fact that the whole country is on vacation, this means that just about everyone spends the holidays going on a tiyul or two.

This may sound absolutely lovely, but you’d probably think differently if you too were stuck in traffic with the rest of Am Yisrael on the way to that secluded, romantic spot you remember from years ago.

It’s amazing that Israelis fall into this trap each year anew (perhaps the food-induced coma is to blame), simply to end up cursing themselves yet again for daring to leave the house for a bit of sunshine.

Still, you haven’t truly celebrated the High Holidays in Israel if you haven’t spent some quality time with the family in the car.

  1. Tear your hair out over the kids’ vacation

More holidays… aargh! Photo by Shutterstock

We imagine that parents around the world are thrilled come the beginning of September. After all, they get to send their kids back to school after a hellishly long summer of fun. Israeli parents, on the other hand, are not even a tiny bit excited, knowing full well that they have to fill in another three weeks of time off school, courtesy of High Holiday season.

After spending a fortune on summer camps, swimming pools and exotic vacations abroad, what are they now to do? Sadly, we have no answer, but if you find yourself pondering on that then you’re truly Israeli.

  1. Escape!

Remember the in-laws, the traffic jams and the kids’ free-time dilemmas above? Well, there’s one very Israeli, one-stop solution for it all: Escape. Drop everything, pack your bags and book the cheapest flight out.

A word of warning, though:this survival mechanism is shared by about half the country. So don’t be too surprised to find yourself celebrating chag with your in-laws after all, just on a Greek island.

  1. Procrastinate, Israeli-style

Procrastinate for the whole festive season in true Israeli style. Photo by Elena Yakusheva via

Achrei hachagim. These two little words, meaning “after the holidays,” pack into their slender form the widespread mentality of complete procrastination that takes over this time of year.

Come September, this short phrase becomes the answer to just about anything. When will I start my diet? Achrei hachagim. When can we discuss my pay raise? Achrei hachagim. When will government offices pick up the phone again? Achrei hachagim (don’t hold your breath).

The fun thing about achrei hachagim is that you, together with the millions of people around you, get to procrastinate without feeling even faintly guilty about it. After all, if everyone else is lazing around, you really can’t be expected to do differently. We guess it’s not too bad being an Israeli after all.

  1. Try to survive until Chanukah

This is a painful one. After a month of stuffing yourself with delicious food, hiking in beautiful weather and thoroughly neglecting all your duties, it’s time to step back into reality.

Returning to the first full week of work after the High Holidays is truly horrible. Because after having our schedules littered with mini mid-week vacations for so long, how are we meant to survive a full five days in the office? It’s simply inhumane.

To make matters worse, the next meaningful Jewish festival is Hanukkah, all the way away in the heart of winter. But if it’s any consolation, we can now get Hanukkah donuts pretty much year-round.

Shana tova, everyone!

Article courtesy ISRAEL21c.

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