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As The Clock Approaches Midnight, Jerusalem Whirrs With Prayer

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Each night this week, the city of Jerusalem hums with prayer when the clock approaches midnight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Praying in Hebrew).

CHANG: Devout Jews gather in synagogues and at the holy site, the Western Wall. They pray for forgiveness leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It begins Friday evening. In recent years, those nighttime prayers have become trendy with Israelis who don't consider themselves religious. Thousands come to Jerusalem on guided tours for a taste of tradition. NPR's Daniel Estrin sent this audio postcard of Jerusalem at night.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: I'm standing at the entrance to the Old City, and it feels like a prayer bazaar.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Hebrew).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Amen.

ESTRIN: There's a guy here waving a chicken over somebody's head before it's given to the poor.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN CHIRPING)

ESTRIN: It's an old Jewish ritual of atonement. And there are tons of tour groups.

ITAMAR BEN DAVID: Hi my name is Itamar Ben David. I live in Jerusalem. I'm a tour guide for more than 10 years. Tonight it's Slichot prayer, people of Israel asking forgiveness from God, asking to repent for their sins over the last year and correct their ways for the new year to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARP MUSIC)

ESTRIN: My tour guide leads me to the traditional Tomb of King David. I meet Izanna Anachiel, who's here with a big group of women.

Why did you come today?

IZANNA ANACHIEL: To pray. I want peace, peace, peace, peace and quiet.

ESTRIN: Here's tour guide Ben David again.

BEN DAVID: I've been guiding people from all over Israel that wanted to have the experience of night prayer. Over time I've been taking groups from all different sects - more religious, less religious. Recently I was taking secular hotel owners from Tel Aviv. They were still interested.

ESTRIN: I meet Carmi Amit at the Tomb of King David. She's on a guided tour with colleagues from work.

CARMI AMIT: We deal with portfolio management, financial business. We're not religious at all. But this is a very special period of the year. I'm thinking about things that I've done this year and maybe people that I hurt without noticing, just thinking about all the fights that were here. So this place makes you stop and think.

ESTRIN: After a few hours wandering the alleys of the Old City, the tour groups end up here at the Western Wall for the main Slichot prayers at midnight. A woman in the crowd introduces herself as Michal Mashiach.

Are you religious?

MICHAL MASHIACH: No. I'm Jewish. I don't have to be religious. Everybody together in this holy place - it's beautiful. Can't you see?

ESTRIN: It's 1 a.m. The place is packed, and the prayers are still going strong.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Praying in Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Praying in Hebrew). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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