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In Israel, Yom Kippur Is Also ‘Bike Day’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar, but on Emek Refaim Street and many another thoroughfare in this holy city, the bikes were out in force Monday.

The Rollerblades were too. And the skateboards. And a lot of very happy kids.

“The children wait all year for this day,” Ephraim Bar, 42, said as he strolled with his tricycle-riding daughter, Ella, beside a passing parade of youthful cyclists. “It’s become a phenomenon.”

Among many secular Israelis--and especially their children--the Day of Atonement in recent years has evolved, oddly, into “Bicycle Day,” a much-anticipated time of merriment on streets normally far too dangerous for children on wheels.

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Bikes, trikes, blades, skates, tiny plastic cars and all other nonmotorized vehicles enjoy almost free rein on Israeli roadways on Yom Kippur, when buses and trains stop running and hardly a car appears on the streets other than the rare ambulance or police vehicle. Orthodox Jews are forbidden to drive on Yom Kippur; most secular Jews abstain from driving out of a sense of cultural tradition.

Bicycle sales shoot up in the days before the holiday--by 300%, according to a recent survey in the Jerusalem Post--and bike shops are abuzz with eager children and their occasionally frantic parents.

“Some of them come in with their money the day before Yom Kippur and say, ‘I need a bike, any bike, for my kid,’ ” said Andres Bokser, the owner of a Jerusalem cycle shop. “It gets a little crazy.”

Not all Israelis are happy about the partial transformation of a Jewish holiday that is traditionally observed with fasting, solemnity and long hours of prayer in shul, or synagogue. For religious Jews, Yom Kippur marks the end of 10 days of penitence that begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and is believed to be the day when God determines each person’s destiny for the coming year.

Many other Israelis consider the day a painful reminder of October 1973, when Egypt and Syria used the holiday to launch a surprise attack on the Jewish state.

“I remember hearing the sound of a truck in the distance that day and knowing that something was really wrong if anyone was on the road,” recalled Janet Baumgold-Land, 51, as she taught her son to ride a bike Monday morning. “It was such a shock.”

These days, bike riders who take a wrong turn into religious neighborhoods, especially in Jerusalem, might have rocks thrown at them, just as there are reports each year of ambulances being stoned as they try to answer calls. (This year, Israeli TV reported 14 incidents involving medical vehicles.)

But many religious Israelis appear tolerant of the young cyclists, ignoring them or even smiling at them as their paths cross.

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“I see [the cycling] as a secular manifestation” of the holiday, said Rabbi David Hartman, who heads a Jerusalem institute dedicated to building bridges between Israel’s religious and secular communities. “It’s OK with me if they want to do it--as long as they don’t hit anyone.”

The two worlds, religious and secular, seemed to come together with surprising equanimity Monday outside Aaron Weingrod’s house in the mixed German Colony neighborhood.

At midmorning, there were more than a dozen bikes in front of Weingrod’s home--and what seemed to be about as many kids making pit stops for clothing and equipment changes inside. Next door, at a large Orthodox synagogue, others prayed for God’s forgiveness for sins committed during the past year.

But no one, in either building, seemed to mind their very different styles of observance, said Weingrod, 42, an architect who immigrated to Israel from Boston in 1974.

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“People know we’re secular, but we have always tried to live as good neighbors,” he said. “We tell our kids not to make a lot of noise on Yom Kippur and to stay out of two areas: the religious neighborhoods and the Arab side of town,” where the holiday is not observed and traffic is normal.

Even within his own family, there are different ways of spending Yom Kippur, Weingrod noted.

“Look, I’m fasting and my kids are having the time of their lives,” he said, grinning.

The bike trend began about 15 years ago, Weingrod and others said, but has spread in recent years from largely secular cities such as Tel Aviv and its suburbs to holy--and hilly--Jerusalem. The participants are mostly children, with many parents, even those who encourage their kids to ride, saying they would feel uncomfortable cycling on such a sacred day.

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Some note, too, that the growing number of bicycles on the roads is partly economic: Many more Israelis can afford to buy their children a bicycle these days than in the relatively recent, recession-ridden past. And many, like Christmas shoppers in America, seem to wait to make the purchase until practically the final moment before Yom Kippur begins.

A weary-looking Bokser, interviewed as he prepared to shut down for the holiday Sunday afternoon, said he had sold 20 bicycles--half his average monthly total--that day alone. (The holiday began at sundown Sunday and lasted until just after 6 p.m. Monday.) All were children’s bikes, selling for $150 to $200, he said.

“People tell me sometimes, ‘Maybe you need another Yom Kippur in the middle of the year,’ ” Bokser said, shaking his head. “I say: “Thank you very much. I need only one.’ ”

But the holiday is also relatively dangerous, with many kids either learning to ride or struggling to remember rusty skills. Israeli newspapers in the days before Yom Kippur are filled with ads for bikes and Rollerblades--and, on the day after, with reports of how many children were hurt.

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