The Last Day of the Year

Elul

In the coming year we will sit on the porch
and watch the flocks of migrating birds
Children on vacation
will be merrily running between the house and the fields
Oh, how wonderful life will be in the coming year!

                                   — Approximate translation of the Hebrew folk song Od Tireh

Today is the last day of the Hebrew month of Elul and hence the last day of the Jewish year.  And just as on December 31, the close of one year and the start of another leaves me in a reflective and introspective state of mind.

Most of us approach the new year with a sense of hope and anticipation.  We like to think of the new year as a clean slate, a fresh opportunity to do better, reach higher, love stronger.  But I recently became aware that, just as many approach the Christmas holidays with a sense of dread and even depression, not everyone enjoys Rosh Hashannah.  For some of us, the apples and the honey, the singing and the shofar and the big holiday se’udot (dinners) just don’t cut it.

One reason for this, I believe, is that if taken seriously, the High Holy Days can be an emotional roller coaster.  Rather than engaging in the riotous merrymaking and drinking of 12/31, on Rosh Hashannah we very somberly admit to our shortcomings, try to figure out where we went wrong and commit ourselves to making changes that will help to make us into the people we really want to be.

Admittedly, this is not exactly fun!  If we are honest, for example, about how we have wasted our time and money, or about some of the awful things we have said and done to those we supposedly love, it can be difficult to look in the mirror.  Everyone wants to think the best of themselves; none of us wants to admit that we’ve done wrong.  Wouldn’t we have a lot better time if we were to play dance music, drink champagne, scream and shout and kiss at midnight?  What is wrong with this type of behavior is that it is geared to help us forget our troubles, not to do something about them.  Inevitably, morning comes and we’ve gained nothing but a hangover.

But why beat ourselves up?  We are not evil people who deliberately set out to do wrong.  Sure, we mess up from time to time.  We’re human.  Can’t we just accept that we’re not perfect?

The answer is that God accepts that we are not perfect.  But since we are made in His image, He also recognizes that we could be much closer to perfection than we are today.  So you’ve made mistakes?  Yes, the Lord forgives, but not so that we can forget about it and then make the same dumb mistakes again.  He forgives so that we can move on, remember where we went wrong before, and do better the next time.  God accepts that we are works in progress, but He does expect us to actually make some progress.  Saying “oh well, I did the best I could” is not acceptable.

So, yes, soul searching is not exactly a source of kicks and giggles. What we are called upon to remember is that God knows all and sees all; nothing can be hidden from Him.  We may as well admit the error of our ways, as they are already known by He who determines our fate.  And indeed, the reason that our holiday season is known as yomim naro’im, The Days of Awe, is that in the Jewish tradition, “on Rosh Hashannah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”  In between these two holidays are ten days of prayer and repentance.  The “eraser” is still in play; the Lord has pity on us when we are honest about our misdeeds and genuinely commit to turning our lives around.  In the liturgy, we pray that “repentance, prayer and charity avert the severe decree.”  God believes in second (and 128th) chances.  But if we are hard-hearted, aver that we have not done wrong and refuse to change our ways, then we have only ourselves to blame when the fate decreed for us in the new year is grim indeed.

The end of the Biblical book of Deuteronomy that we read at this season riffs heavily on the theme of choices and free will.  God has given us the ability to choose whether to do right or to do wrong.  Whichever path we take, we must accept the consequences.  For we are also choosing whether to bring the blessing or the curse into our lives.  If we close our eyes to the suffering around us, ignore the needy and the lonely in our communities, make excuses for not giving liberally of our time and our money, then we have willingly given up the blessing and have no one to blame but ourselves when our prosperity and security comes crashing down around our ears.

I do understand why the gravity of our holiest of seasons makes some people depressed and causes others to dislike Rosh Hashannah.  Yet if we vow to correct our mistakes and to improve on what we’ve done right, we have nothing to fear.  It is then that we can, as in the Hebrew folksong quoted at the start of this post, bring peace, contentment and happiness into our lives all year long.

Hag sameakh and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet and fulfilling year.

 

Apples, Honey and No. 2 Pencils

apple pencil

In the sunny, sunny hours
bees sip nectar from the flowers
To the hive flies the bee,
making honey for you and me
Shiny apples, round and sweet,
what a happy Rosh Hashannah treat!

At work, I was trying to explain to one of my employees about why I am going to be out for part of the week.  I was pretty sure that mentioning Rosh Hashannah was not going to get me very far.  I could just say that’s it’s the New Year, I thought, then realized that this might result in a mixture of confusion and disbelief since everyone knows that New Year’s is January 1.  Should I get into the differences between the solar calendar and the lunar calendar?  Sigh. Perhaps I can just cite cultural differences, saying that, like the Chinese New Year, the Jewish New Year is celebrated at a different time of year than most of us associate with tearing off the last page of the calendar and making funky resolutions that are long forgotten by the time we get a month or two down the road.

 Just then, it hit me:  The children’s song about bees and flowers and apples and honey that most of us who attended a Jewish school remember from kindergarten.  I hadn’t thought about this little ditty in decades, but somehow it all came back to me in a flash, along with memories of using blunt scissors to cut out paper apples that had our names written on them.

I smiled a goofy grin and explained to my employee that, in my faith, this is our holiday season.  Instead of Christmas and New Year’s, we have Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur.

Later, I realized that this memento of childhood days probably came back to me because, here in California, the school year has just started, and the other day one of my employees took some time off to bring her son to his first day of kindergarten.  All went well at first, she related.  She introduced her son to the teacher, saw that her little one was happily occupied, left the classroom and began walking down the hall.  With a tear in her eye, she noticed the sign posted on the wall:  “Quick exits make fewer tears.”  That’s when she felt something tugging at her dress.  She turned around to find her son asking why she was leaving without him.  Reassuring him that she would be back in a few hours and that he would have fun in the meantime, she retraced her steps and returned her little one to the classroom.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the new school year and the new Jewish year both start at about the same time.  I probably hadn’t made this association because Rosh Hashannah falls extraordinarily early this year, late September or early October being a much more common setting for this holiday.  In both cases we start out hopeful; with new clothes and a positive attitude, we look forward to a fresh start.  Just as it was when we started kindergarten, we fear the unknown that lies before us and find it hard to give up the reassuring familiarity of the past even as we step over the threshold of opportunities for discovery and learning.  As we move forward through the grades of school, we often are eager to leave our mistakes of the previous year behind.  With a blank notebook and a cache of No. 2 pencils, we vow to get it right this time, whether it be in math, writing, getting along with the annoying kid who sits behind us or dealing with the bully on the playground.

Not much has changed over the years.  As in kindergarten, some of us have to be dragged out of our comfort zones, kicking and screaming.  Others go more willingly, albeit with a turn of the head and a tearful wave goodbye.  We resolve to be better stewards of our money and our time, to pay more attention to our children, to be kinder to our neighbors, to be more involved in our communities and to deal more effectively with the bullying influences of life that forever tempt us with frivolity as a viable alternative to self-improvement.

Like the bees sipping nectar from the flowers in the children’s song, we greet the New Year with with vigor and industry, intent on making this time count.  And like the butterfly that has outgrown its cocoon, we long to break away from the limitations of our past, shake off the dewdrops from our newfound wings, and fly away.

Sweet Rosh Hashannah Memories

apples honey

When I was a child, Rosh Hashannah was always a mixed blessing.  Sure, we got out of school for two days and we would eat fancy meals on my mother’s good dishes.  But then there was all that shul.

I would be wearing my white shirt and clip-on tie, my sister would doff her school clothes for a cute dress and my mother would dress up smartly in a pant suit with a crisp blouse.  I would pretend to choke on the smell of hair spray as Mom made up her face in the bathroom mirror.  She would buckle my youngest sister into a stroller and we would all push out the door, around the corner and up the long Alexander Avenue hill.

We’d keep well to the side of the road and watch for cars. I would be wearing a colorful yarmulke, blue or green or purple, the gold inscription on the white inside commemorating someone’s bar mitzvah or wedding that my parents or grandfather had attended.

Mostly we’d walk along in silence, finally reaching the top of the hill and gliding down Williams Avenue to the highway.  We could hear Route 45 before we saw it, the cars whooshing by in both directions.  When we reached it, we’d leave our development and turn left onto the sidewalk.  It contained many cracks and it went up and down in places where tree roots had pushed from underneath.

A few more blocks and we would pass Liotta’s Italian Bakery, the intoxicating aroma of bread and cakes bringing smiles to our faces and reminding me of times my father had snuck out with me for a brownie with fudge icing or a lemon ices.  The Shell gas station and the big shopping center that had both Waldbaum’s and Grand Union, along with two kosher butcher shops, were on the other side of the street, so we didn’t have many cars pulling out into our path.

We crossed two main intersections, the first with Eckerson Road and then, just past Cinema 45 and Chicken Delite, the junction of Hickory Street.  We would press the button on the pole to stop traffic so we could cross.  Then came the final stretch to the big Jewish Community Center.

When we walked in the door, my mother would reach into the bin of white lacy head coverings that married women wore, affixing one to her hair with a bobby pin.

The members, who contributed lots of money all year long, sat in the pews in the main sanctuary upstairs.  We were definitely not members.  We rarely attended synagogue other than on the High Holy Days.  We were one of the downstairs people.

“Downstairs” was the auxiliary service, rows of folding chairs set up beneath the basketball nets in the gymnasium. A visiting cantor had been hired, and he would take turns with the regular cantor, running up and down the stairs to alternate various parts of the service.

Even in the downstairs exurbs, most of the folding chairs had been reserved by those who had a ticket.  We would always come in partway through the service and find some empty seats next to each other.  Before long, a couple or a family would come in with tickets bearing the seat numbers we were occupying.  Time to move.  As the gym filled up, we couldn’t always find four seats together.  At least we don’t need five seats, I would think.  My father always stayed home.

Lucky Dad!  He didn’t have to do all that walking and then sit through hours and hours of Hebrew prayers.  My father had no use for anything to do with religion, which, he would say, was the cause of most of the world’s misery.  I was in fifth grade and hadn’t yet learned the word “atheist.”

The first year or two after we moved out of a crowded apartment in New York City and into a beautiful suburban home, my mother griped and yelled and cajoled until my father came along with us to synagogue just to keep the peace.  Instead of walking with us, he would sleep late and walk over later.  He’d show up close to the end of the service and walk home with us.  Finally, my mother decided that bullying him into joining us “wasn’t worth the aggravation.”

Since I attended a very religious Orthodox yeshiva, I could (mostly) follow along in the Hebrew in the thick mahzor (prayer book).  My mother, who did not read Hebrew, followed along in the English translation and periodically asked me what page we were on.  I felt so grown up when I got to turn the pages of her book and show her where we were.

As the service droned on and on around me, I would zone out and mentally picture the map of South America, silently tracing the countries and reciting the capitals.  Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia.  Huge Brazil that took up most of the page in my social studies textbook.  Mr. Fisher taught us how to say the names of all the capitals with the proper Spanish accent.  “Carrrracas,” I would say under my breath, trying to roll the R just right.  “Asunción.”  All around me, the congregants were singing, and I knew they couldn’t hear me.  Mom would give me a poke.  Okay, I guess someone heard me.

“Congregation, please rise.”  We’d stand up, we’d sit down.  Stand, sit, stand, sit.  Here comes a family down the aisle in their holiday finery.  Time to move agains.  If we couldn’t find another empty seat right away, we’d stand in the back for a while.

My favorite part of the service was always the blowing of the shofar.  The little kids would be walked or carried up to the bimah to view as well as hear the spectacle, while I would stand on my tiptoes to see over and between the adults.  The long, twisted ram’s horn would be blown over and over, too-woo, too-woo, too-woo!  I would wonder how a ram managed to wear that huge thing on his head.  And then it was time for the long tekiah gedolah, where the ba’al tekiah would inhale and blow as long as he could, his face getting redder and redder and the quavering note seeming to last forever.  What a thrilling show!  People would call out Yasher koakh! in congratulations and would reach out to shake his hand.

I would count the pages remaining in the prayer book until the closing hymn.  Forty more pages.  Thirty more pages.  Ooh, the cantor skipped a couple pages, cool!

Like saving balm, I’d finally hear the closing hymns of Adon Olam and Ein Keloheinu.  Then it was up the stairs to the lobby, out the front door, down the entryway out to Route 45.  The long walk home.

I knew we’d have to do the same long walk and boring hours of shul the next day, but for now we were home.  Instead of eating in the kitchen, we’d sit at the dining room table, covered with a white tablecloth, the white holiday candles glowing in Mom’s brass candlesticks.  Apple slices dipped in honey would be served, along with Manischewitz concord grape wine for the adults and grape juice for the children.  We would wish each other a sweet year.  My mother would be up and down heating food and serving us, meat balls in tomato sauce or roasted turkey, with carrots (also a symbol of a sweet year), potatoes and string beans.  We would each dribble a little honey onto our slices of challah.  My father would boil water for tea, and out would come the golden sponge cake and the honey cake with the slivered almonds on top.

Stuffed to the gills, my sisters and I would have the rest of the day to play board games while my parents took a nap.  And there was no school tomorrow.  This was indeed a sweet start to the new year.

L’shana tova, everyone!  Happy New Year 5774.  May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet year.