Moving silently through the long shadows of the early morning sun, small knots of Jewish worshipers walk down the center lines of deserted streets, as certain of their safety as they are that repentance and righteousness will assure them of a place in the Book of Life. r
A small boy playing on a skateboard attracts disapproving stares, and the click of an unwitting pedestrian's cigarette lighter turns heads as if it were the crack of a pistol.
It is Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and nowhere else is the Day of Atonement observed as it is here.
The quietude of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur is awesome, challenging the mind to recollect the normal cacophony of roaring buses and honking horns that the flow of human traffic absorbs absently like some kind of discordant Muzak.
The city comes to a virtual standstill, as if frozen in time from sundown to sundown. Traffic vanishes and if an unthinking motorist ventures out, he or she risks becoming the target of rock-throwing devout.
Every office, store and place of entertainment is closed, and Israel's radio and television airwaves are silent. When the people are not in the synagogues chanting the plaintive prayers of penitence, they stay in their homes.
The city takes on a surrealistic quality, and to a visitor witnessing his third Yom Kippur in Jerusalem, it conjures a recurring vision of Neville Shute's nuclear doomsday novel, "On the Beach."
The King David Hotel, its soft pink stones basking in the sun, looks incongruously like a forlorn monastery. Usually frenetic Jaffa Road, its lively botiques and aromatic sandwich stands darkened and shuttered, is a ghost town. The park benches that line Ben-Yehuda Street, where foot-weary shoppers and carefree lovers passively watch the throngs go by, are empty.
It has been this way since the cry of the kol nidre prayers rang in the synagogues last night, and Jews of varying observancy began ancient religious rites, some as simple as sending gifts to the poor, and others regarded by secular Jews as bizarre.
One of the less common rituals is the kapparot, in which live chickens are swung over the head and symbolically invested with the sins of the purchaser. The chickens are then killed and given to the needy.
But in this year of triple-digit inflation, with chickens selling for $2 a pound, many observant Jews instead swung their devalued Israeli currency over their heads before imparting it to the poor.
Today is the seventh Yom Kippur since the Egyptian Third Army, ostensibly conducting autumn manuevers, suddenly raced across the Suez Canal to attack Israeli Army positions in the solitude of the Sinai Desert, plunging Israel into its fifth war.
The stillness of that Yom Kippur afternoon was shattered by the screeching of civil defense sirens and cars racing wildly through the streets as Army reservists hurried to their units.
The once undreamed of peace treaty with Egypt, and the tranquility of this Yom Kippur of the Jewish year 5741, seem to make a war now even more remote than it had seemed in 1973.
But Jerusalem, with its pure air and echoing valleys, is a city that carries sounds. The high-pitched call to prayers of a mosque's muezzin wails from behind the ancient walls of the Old City -- attesting to the presence of another, alien, culture.
Passing into the Arab sector of the walled city on Yom Kippur is like passing into another world, The narrow, stone-paved streets of the Christian Quarter Road and the Via Dolorosa are packed with Arab shoppers, tourists and vegetable carts. The pungent odor of oriental spices blends with the smoke of blacksmiths' fires, and the sounds of the pealing church bells seem in harmony with the tapping of a tinsmith's hammer.
Security is tight in the Old City, because this is the day to watch for hidden bombs. Israeli soldiers lounge, seemingly at ease, but their automatic rifles at the ready.
Emerging through crowded Damascus Gate, Sultan Suleiman Street is alive with bumper-to-bumper traffic, as smoking diesel buses strain with their overloads of passengers headed east.
The pre-1967 border is closed to West Bank Arab residents for security reasons until Yom Kippur ends, but the shops and cafes of Salahedin Street in East Jerusalem are packed with customers, mostly Arabs but a few secular Jews who did not observe the fast of atonement.
Just a few blocks west, a police barricade marks the demarcation line between the contrasting cultures. And as the sun begins to set, the first Jewish worshipers make their way to the 2,000-year-old Wailing Wall, the western wall of the Second Temple.
A shrill blast of the ram's horn just at dark signals the end of the holy day, as hundreds of pious Jews pray at the Wailing Wall and hundreds of onlookers mingle in the broad plaza behind them.
In contrast to the solemnity of the day, about 100 religious school students from the rebuilt Jewish Quarter of the Old City pour down the steep steps into the plaza, singing gaily and dancing in a traditional parade.
As the worshipers empty from the plaza, heading to their homes for a feast and celebration of the end of Yom Kippur, Arab shopkeepers barely a block away go through the desultory motions of closing up after another routine Saturday.