Israelis live from holiday to holiday – and that’s not from the US’s Fourth of July to Thanksgiving or from China’s National Day to New Year’s Day. It’s from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to Hannukah! Diverse Jewish traditions from around the world come together in Israel to create something truly unique as Israelis invent new and creative ways to celebrate. Here are a few of the primary holidays and weekly traditions that you can look forward to.
Shabbat (Friday evening through Saturday) is a time to relax and reflect while recharging for the next week. Whether secular or religious, Ashkenazi or Sephardic, a local Israeli or a visitor from abroad, you will find yourself settling into the Shabbat atmosphere each week. After spending Friday morning finishing any last-minute chores, most people gather for a meal with family or friends in the evening. On Shabbat, some spend the day at synagogue, others visit friends and family, and some hang out at places like the beach or go hiking. Most stores and many restaurants are closed, and you can feel the difference from the rest of the busy week. Make time for your friends (who you’ll grow to call your Israeli family) and yourself to join the collective experience of celebrating Shabbat.
If you arrive in Israel in September, you will start your “year” along with the Jewish people in a celebration of Rosh Hashanah. Whether you spend it with new friends or go to one of the many local synagogues, you will certainly encounter new traditions along the way. You can even try a traditional dish: the head of a fish, symbolizing the “head” of the year.
Just ten days after bringing in the New Year, Israel essentially stops in its tracks for Yom Kippur. From sundown on the evening before the Day of Atonement, stores and restaurants close down, cars stop driving, and a gentle quiet settles over Israel. You can walk down the middle of the street along with a multitude of Israelis coming out to experience the incredible stillness all around you.
Once Yom Kippur ends, sukkot (little booths with creative decorations) start to appear on porches, in yards, and outside restaurants around the country. Sukkot is coming! Since traditionally people eat all their meals in a sukkah during Sukkot, you and your friends may find yourselves eating in all sorts of interesting places during the week.
After seven days of sukkah hopping, it is time for Simchat Torah, when you might see people dancing in the streets with a Torah! Many Israelis are on vacation between Sukkot and Simchat Torah. This makes it a great time of year for festivals and fairs – it is hard to choose what to do first! Some popular events include the Jerusalem March and the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival.
Things calm down a bit until Hannukah. Get ready for some new delicious foods! To celebrate one of the miracles of Hannukah – that a small pot of oil lasted for eight days instead of one – we switch to a rich diet in oily and delicious foods. Israelis switch from latkes (potato pancakes) in favor of sufganiyot – Israeli jelly donuts! Deep fried, just to keep the connection to oil alive, these donuts are incredibly imaginative in their flavors. Dulce de leche? Check! Espresso? Check! Pistachio? Check! Chocolate with an infusion of raspberry sauce? Check! And instead of presents, some people give chocolate gelt (coins), but the kids don’t complain!
Although schools and businesses are open on Tu B’Shvat, Israelis don’t ignore the opportunity to go out and plant trees. Most years, the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayement L’Yisrael) gives out free trees so people can go and plant one. Schools hold ceremonies, community groups fix up their gardens, and everyone gets a chance to help Israel literally “go green.”
Just weeks later, we get our chance to dress up and party when Purim arrives. Children start celebrating early, dressing up with a daily theme such as “kings and queens” or “pajama day.” On the night of Purim, you might arrive at a synagogue for the reading of the Megillah, and you might be surrounded by bunny rabbits, monsters, or even a Spiderman or two. In the streets, the sky is the limit for the imagination of the locals as they create innovative costumes and celebrate in a massive street party that goes on until late in the night. Beware of the kids with the silly-streamers and the foam!
In the month leading up to Passover, stores start to dispose of their wheat products and move some of the not-Kosher-for-Passover foods off the shelves. Israelis spend their days cleaning and organizing in a “Spring Cleaning Gone Mad” kind of way. Once the day of the Seder arrives, a calm comes over the country, as everyone makes their way to family or friends to spend the evening remembering our Exodus from Egypt and the long struggle for freedom as we read the Haggadah. More than 95% of Israelis attend a Seder every year on Passover. Let us know if you are interested in attending one too! None of the stores sell pita or bread for the whole week, and even places like McDonald’s replace their hamburger buns with wheat-free versions. Just like during Sukkot, you can head to a desert festival or spend the week by the beach at the Sea of Galilee. As soon as the holiday finishes, people rush back to their local markets to stock up on bread and cereal all over again.
From Passover we count the 49 days of the Omer to Shavuot, when we remember getting the Torah at Mount Sinai. For generations, we have eaten meals rich in dairy for this holiday. The supermarkets stock tons of cheeses and dairy products so that Israelis can make an incredible array of food – quiches, pies, blintzes, cheesecake, burekas, and more. On many kibbutzim, there is a ceremony to remember the “first” offerings of the year – an agricultural reminder to bring the first fruits of the year to our Temple in Jerusalem, dating back more than two thousand years. The cutest part of the modern variation is when all the new moms and dads bring out the babies that were born over the last year.
Once Shavuot ends, Israelis spend their summer at the beaches, hiking through the nature trails, or visiting archaeological sites before gearing up for Rosh Hashanah all over again. You can also take a look at the wide range of exciting summer events in Jerusalem and Israel.
For more detailed information on holidays and schedules, see the external link on holidays in Israel.