Slichot: A God's eye view
Jerusalem has never been shy about turning religion into a quick buck, and the month of Elul has become something of a cash cow for the city. The lead up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is when Jews, especially Sephardim, wake up at what were previously thought to be ungodly hours (turns out they are, in fact, most Godly, and not just for Jews) to beg for their lives with a little prayer called Slichot. It's kind of like a High Holy Days pregame, except without all the drinking.
Lately, tours of the different synagogues hosting such services have become the hottest trend this side of "Esther" and those little red strings. (We know, we know, so 2004) Slichotourists come from all over Israel, and the world, to experience what real penitence looks like (take that, Lent). Whether most tourists come to the holy city with a mind to repent themselves, or just to see what all the early morning crying is about, is anybody's guess, but synagogues and neighborhoods around this fair city have not exactly closed their doors to the prying eyes of those who want to see real live slichot in action.
Maybe it's because of its holy-hippy Kabbalah vibe, its established Sephardi community, or it's old city-like winding, narrow "roads," but Nachlaot has become the Times Square of slichotourism, a tried and true must-do. There are a number of nighttime tours visiting the varied and historical synagogues around the neighborhood, though some say it's better to ditch the group and wander through the dark alleyways alone with only your atonement addled mind for company. The best part, of course, is being able to hop right over to Machane Yehuda afterwards for some wake-up juice and green shakshuka.
The Bucharim quarter is another Sephardi stronghold with much to offer in the slichot tours department, but to really get close to God, head on down to the Old City, the center of the slichot, and general, universe. Some tours start in the Old City at different points, or you can make the spiritual journey from new Jerusalem to old with one tour starting off at Mishkenot Sha'ananim. There is also a "green" tour beginning at Brigham Young University in Emek Tzurim and venturing from there inside the walls. (Dial *3639 for details on both.) There is even a tour this year exploring the Moslim Quarter as well as the Jewish to mark the significance of the start of Elul and Ramadan falling on the same day. By some crazy accident, all the tours terminate in the same place, the Kotel, coincidentally also the object of all that lamenting.
May you be inscribed in the reservation book for slichot tours. And the book of life. That's a good one, too.
Photo of slichot service courtesy of JessicalleneM under a creative commons license.