My mother called a few nights ago and, as might be expected, we began discussing the upcoming Jewish holidays.
Reading from a newsletter published by her synagogue, my mom remarked that Rosh Hashannah begins on the evening of September 4 this year, the earliest date it can possibly occur. The last time this happened was in 1897. “That’s two years before my parents were born!” she exclaimed in amazement.
The newsletter went on to describe how, this year, Thanksgiving Day will coincide with the first day of Hanukkah, a confluence that will not occur again until the eightieth century. In other words, it will never occur again, she said. My mother believes that planet Earth will no longer be in existence so many thousands of years from now.
Our conversation took a nostalgic turn when I mentioned my grandfather, whose birthday would have been this week. Although he died back in 1980, he has been on my mind lately. I was just telling my wife how Grandpa would have been intrigued by our life out here in the desert, and how he would have jumped at the chance to visit us here.
Grandpa was a real “people person,” who believed that strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet. After crossing the Atlantic from Poland as a young man, he spent the rest of his life in New York City. He loved the city, and would hop on the subway and gladly transfer twice to visit someone in the farthest corner of one of the outer boroughs. He enjoyed travel and experiencing new places, as long as at the end of the adventure he could return to his snug apartment in the Bronx. In his latter years, he began vacationing in Netanya, a Mediterranean beach resort in Israel.
It occurred to me that Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year, is known in the holiday liturgy as yom ha’zikaron, the Day of Remembrance (not to be confused with Israel’s Memorial Day, which bears the same name in Hebrew and is celebrated in April or May). Indeed, remembering is one of the primary themes of the day.
Jews traditionally view Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur as the days of judgment, the season when the Lord remembers all our deeds of the past year and decrees our fate for the coming year accordingly. We, too, are admonished to remember what we did and what we failed to accomplish in the year gone by, to admit the error of our ways and to commit to doing better in the following twelve months. The sound of the shofar is a loud blast designed to shake us out of our reveries and wake us up to the needs of our neighbors waiting right in front of us for the attention from which we have turned away.
But Rosh Hashannah is also an occasion on which we remember loved ones who are no longer here to celebrate with us. And as I called up childhood memories of walking to synagogue with my grandfather and watching The Jackie Gleason Show and Gunsmoke with him in his living room, my mother revealed that she recently found a letter that he had written to her in 1952.
My mother and father had just married on Christmas Eve and were away for a one-week honeymoon. They were eighteen years old. Dad was in the Air Force, working on planes in New Jersey. But for Mom, this was her first time away from home.
My parents spent a week in a resort hotel at the Jersey shore. My maternal grandparents were acutely feeling their empty nest, as both their daughters had married and moved out in the same week. So at the kitchen table, Grandma dictated a letter to her youngest daughter and her new husband, while Grandpa wrote it out in his neat longhand. “Don’t forget shoes under the bed,” they warned, worrying that my parents’ first visit to a hotel would be marred by losing some of their personal belongings. “They wanted to make sure that we knew what to do,” my mother explained, “but we did know what to do.”
“Of course you did, Mom,” I responded, wondering how anyone could accidentally leave their shoes behind. But then I remembered how, in my younger days, when visiting a hotel I would avoid placing clothes in the dresser drawers for fear that, out of sight, I would leave them behind. And like a message in a bottle, I could feel the love of my grandparents for my mother across a continent and across the span of 61 years. I am so delighted that, in cleaning out a closet, my mother discovered that she had saved her parents’ letter all this time.
Rosh Hashannah begins on Wednesday evening, and I wish miles and circumstances did not prevent me from sharing the holiday with my parents. This year, both days of the holiday fall on weekdays, making for two opportunities to hear the sounding of the shofar. When one of the days of Rosh Hashannah falls on the Sabbath, we do not blow shofar on that day. In Israel, Rosh Hashannah is only a single day, meaning that if it falls on the Sabbath, there is no shofar heard that year at all. When this happens, the liturgy changes its description of Rosh Hashannah from “a day of sounding of the shofar” to “a day of recalling the sound of the shofar.”
For me, this year will have to be one of those times of merely recalling the sound of the shofar. But as I contemplate what the new year may hold, I will count my many blessings, among them that my mother cleaned out a closet and found precious remembrances of our family’s past.