In Jewish capital, a bicycle holiday Yom Kippur: As roads in Jerusalem empty of traffic for the holy day of fasting, prayer and atonement, children on bikes take over the streets.

October 01, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- A remarkable thing happens in this holy city on Yom Kippur.

The frantic cacophony dissipates. Pedestrians and children on bicycles own the streets that have emptied for this day of fasting, prayer and atonement.

For Jews, there is no holier day than Yom Kippur, which translates as Day of Atonement. It is the culmination of a 10-day period that inaugurates the new year. And on that final day, Jews retire from the business of the world to reflect on the year past, atone for their sins and remember the dead.

In Jerusalem, another ritual has emerged.

It is as familiar to this city of stone and faith as the parade of men in skullcaps and prayer shawls walking to the Western Wall, a remnant of the Temple built by Herod in 20 B.C. and considered among the holiest sites in Judaism.

It is the scene of children on bicycles racing through the streets. From helmeted adolescents on big-wheeled mountain bikes to toddlers in side curls on tricycles, youngsters traverse the city in a way they can do on no other day of the year.

Pedaling leisurely in the middle of a road usually clogged with traffic. Or racing down a barren highway that rivals any downhill slope.

"Yom Kippur is their holiday," heralded a centerfold story this week in Yediot Ahronot, one of the country's leading daily newspapers. "The bicycle riders, roller bladers and skate

boarders. It's the beginning of the annual bicycle holiday."

Not all the news was good on this matter, however. Israel Radio reported last night that 135 youngsters were injured in bicycle accidents around the country yesterday.

Nowhere else in the world is Yom Kippur celebrated as it is in the capital of the Jewish state. Yom Kippur began Tuesday evening and ended at sundown yesterday. buses stood idle. Stores closed. Traffic lights were dark. Radio stations shut down.

The streets, usually a roar of idling engines, blaring horns and accelerating buses, rang with the whoops and hollers of youth, squealing bike brakes and the occasional police siren.

"The road is ours," said Jonathon Fainsod, a 10-year-old who rode along King George Street, the city's main shopping thoroughfare.

Jonathon and brother Benjamin, 12, began their bike trip in the western part of the city, a predominantly secular neighborhood. They were met by their uncle, Gershon Dorot, and his sons, Boaz, 13, and Yoel, 7.

Pedaling past the Great Synagogue, the cyclists encountered a trio of children with arms outstretched, playfully darting among the cyclists. Joggers jogged by and mothers pushed baby carriages. Fathers carried infants.

"You have to be careful," the father told a passing cyclist. "You're expected to be behave differently on this day."

Dorot's advice recalled the solemnity of this holiday in the Jewish areas of the city. In most Orthodox neighborhoods, the synagogues were filled, the streets off limits to anyone but walkers. Stones have been thrown at cars in years past. Nonreligious or non-Jewish residents refrain from driving even in secular neighborhoods.

In the Arab sectors of the city, shops and markets opened. Palestinian shopkeepers in the Old City catered to the visiting tourists.

In the Dorot family, wife and mother, Nomi, was home fasting. So were the parents of cousins Benjamin and Jonathon. A veteran of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Gershon Dorot recognized the day in his own way.

"I'm permanently volunteering not to fast and to take the kids out," says Dorot, a high-tech businessman, and the day's bike leader. "Every year we take a different route. It is a special day even though I don't fast. We try to make it special for the kids."

Like stopping in the middle of King George Street to yank a fig off a tree.

The cyclists head across town, still stopping at major intersections and crossing carefully despite the lack of traffic. They passed the Supreme Court building and arrived at the entrance of a highway named for former Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

The blacktop of the two-lane road beckoned.

"Come on, let's go," shouted Yoel.

The cyclists sped down the highway, the wind cooling their sunburned faces, their wheels racing. Mile after mile.

Like a bird in flight, young Yoel lifted his hands from the bars of his bike and glided down the remaining stretch, his arms flapping in slow motion.

At the end of the highway, the father asked, "Shall we keep on?"

On they went to the Arab village of Beit Tzafafa, where they stopped for water, chunks of sweet Arab pastry -- "to make it different than an ordinary journey" -- ice cream pops and freshly baked pita bread.

By midday, the group was climbing the hills toward the southern end of Jerusalem and home. Benjamin recalled the spaghetti his mother cooked last year to break the Yom Kippur fast. He expected the same yesterday.

But the day was not yet over.

"We go home, drink," said Boaz, "and go out for another ride."

Pub Date: 10/01/98

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