YOM KIPPUR: Day of Atonement, celebrated 10 days after Rosh Hashanah. The whole country comes to a standstill - no shops are open, no public transportation, no cars in the street apart from ambulances, airports are shut down, no radio broadcasts or TV programs (unless you have cable). Special features: Fasting from sundown on the eve of Yom Kippur until the following evening. Religious people (and even many of those who are not) spend the whole day in the synagogue, usually with a break at mid-day.
It is customary to wear white on the eve of Yom Kippur (white= purity). Leather shoes are not worn, bearing in mind that a living creature gave its life for them. Instead, you will see a variety of interesting footwear, from beach thongs to cloth slippers and sneakers, which can look a little odd paired up with fancy suits and dresses.
Many synagogues require advance purchase of a ticket if you want to insure yourself a seat. A long blast of the shofar at the last service marks the end of Yom Kippur and people rush home to eat. All of a sudden the streets fill with cars and the news comes on - and it's back to normal.
One of the weirder customs associated with Yom Kippur is "kapparot." Today it is mainly practiced by the ultra-Orthodox. They hold a live chicken or rooster in their right hand, recite a prayer( "Zot kapparati" - This is my atonement) and swing it around their head three times. The poor bird is a kind of stand-in for man's sins. The chicken is then slaughtered and given to the needy.
Nowadays, many people practice a "sanitized" version of this ritual. They place money in a handkerchief, swing it around their heads and donate it to charity.
Shavu'ot (Feast of Weeks or Pentecost) comes out exactly 50 days after Passover, on the 6th of Sivan, in late May or early June. Also called "Hag Habikurim" - holiday of the first fruits - it was the day that farmers brought the best of their harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem as an offering. Shavu'ot also celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. Again, it is a Sabbath-like holiday that begins and ends at sundown (no stores open, no public transportation).
What I love most about this holiday is the tradition of eating milk products. Cheeses of every kind are on sale. Cheesecake and blintzes - sweet cheese crepes - are popular dishes. White clothing is traditional, and you will see little children wearing wreaths of flowers on their heads and carrying small baskets of fruits and vegetables to kindergarten before the holiday. Synagogues and homes are decked the greenery. The Book of Ruth, with its agricultural themes, is read out in the synagogue.
On the eve of Shavu'ot, it is customary to stay up and study all night long at a "Tikkun." Many synagogues organize a marathon of lectures and classes (with refreshments) for those who are willing to give up some shut-eye. Keep your eyes peeled: According to tradition, the sky opens up at precisely 12 midnight. The trouble is, you always seem to blink just at that second...
The 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, which begins on the second day of Passover. "Omer" was a barley offering in the Temple in ancient times. From Passover, 49 days are counted until Shavuot, which falls on the 50th day. This is a semi-mourning period in which very religious Jews do not shave, cut their hair or get married. According to tradition, Lag Ba'omer marked the end of an epidemic that killed 24,000 disciples of the famous Rabbi Akiva, who was illiterate until the age of 40. This was said to be punishment for the students' lack of respect for one another. Anyway, the 33rd day of the Omer became a day of celebration. Bonfires and picnics are customary. Buses run as usual and the shops are open, but schools are closed so the kids can go out and have fun. For weeks ahead of time, you will see children dragging old boards, crates and bits of lumber to the place where they plan to light their bonfire. When it gets dark, the smell of fires burning spreads over the city. The biggest to-do is in Meron, the burial place of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai near Safed. Thousands of people flock to the site to dance and sing around a giant bonfire.
Many religious people don't cut their children's hair until they're 3 - the age when they supposedly begin studying Torah. Lag Ba'omer is when they get their curls snipped off...
Passover, a spring festival celebrated in April (more or less coinciding with Easter) marks the exodus of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. It is a week-long holiday that requires rigorous advance preparation. The house must be throroughly cleaned to remove every speck of "hametz" - bread, cake, cookies, anything containing flour, actually any food product opened before the holiday. It is a kind of spring-cleaning, but multiplied beyond anything you've seen in any other culture...The cleaning countdown in some houses begins the moment Purim is over. The highlight of the holiday is the seder - a festive dinner on the first night of Passover (and outside of Israel, also on the second), at which the "haggadah" is read and a whole slew of special rituals are carried out. Bread is not eaten throughout the holiday, replaced by flat cracker-like squares of matza. The seder can take several hours,
and often ends after midnight. It is customary to invite guests and share the meal with others - both family and strangers. Four cups of wine are drunk and a variety symbolic foods are eaten (explanations are provided in the haggadah).
In terms of getting around, only the first day and the last day of the holiday are Sabbath-like. The other days, shops are open (not bakeries and pastry shops, though) and buses run. The children are off from school , the weather is usually springy and the countryside is in full bloom. So many people pack a matza picnic and head for the great outdoors.
SIMCHAT TORAH: Rejoicing of the Torah, celebrates the end of the yearly Torah reading cycle and the beginning of a new one, starting with Bereshit (Genesis). It is a one-day Sabbath-like holiday, which means no public transportation or shopping. The action here is in the synagogue. At services in the evening and morning, the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and danced with in a procession called "hakafot." There are seven of them, so that all the males get a chance to carry a Torah. In an Orthodox synagogue the women stand on the side and sometimes dance, but if a woman really wants to participate, she will have to head for a Conservative or Reform synagogue where women are included. All males over 13 are then called to recite the blessing over the Torah. This can take a long time, so services last for hours. Usually there is a kiddush in the middle, i.e. wine, cake and other goodies. In some synagogues, the dancing gets ecstatic and the hakafot are outside. In Jerusalem, there are congregations that dance all the way to the Kotel, or Western Wall.
ROSH HASHANAH: The Jewish New Year, usually celebrated sometime in September. A two-day holiday when most shops are closed and there is no public transportation. Special customs: The shofar -ram's horn - is blown in the synagogue (unless the holiday falls on a Sabbath), meals begin with apples dipped in honey after reciting a blessing that expresses hope for a sweet new year. On the second night of the holiday a blessing is recited over a new fruit (either something exotic or simply one you haven't yet eaten that season). Pomegranates are traditional for Rosh Hashana. They ripen in the fall, and also they have many seeds, symbolizing the many blessings we look forward to in the new year.