Dipping into a sweet new year
The cycles of the year begin for me in the fall and have always been lovingly associated with walking from our home to synagogue for the High Holy Days. Ever since I was a very young child, I recall loving to scuff through the falling autumn leaves with my parents, sisters and brother on our way to Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur services.
Those blended memories are evoked each year as the holidays approach — bringing with them nostalgia for simpler times, simpler days. What I began to perceive then, without its being translated into words, was that the traditions we were observing were deeply connected to who my parents, my grandparents and I were. As I grew to understand them, they came to enrich my life.
Childhood memory is like that — there is the shimmering recollection of a happy time — holding hands with my mom or dad, feeling that all was right with the world, that we were all together in a safe little bubble outside of time, perceiving no fear or threat. I now know they consciously created that security blanket around us.
Beyond the leaves, an epoch of madness
Certainly for my folks at the same time they were protecting us, there was a deep, rumbling sense of suppressed horror at the Holocaust that was consuming their brothers, sisters, cousins and friends. We walked innocently through the falling leaves, and it would be a long while before we children would even learn about the twentieth century’s epoch of madness.
Every Jewish family had relatives caught up in the targeted genocide that took the lives of so many who simply had the misfortune of being born Jewish in Europe during the decade into which I was born. It took their lives, and those of the children they never had, phantom generations to come. For my family and others like us, safe in the United States, the legacy holds a great deal of survivor’s guilt and something else as well.
How to understand and accept the chance that brought one set of ancestors to our shores and left another in the old country? In truth, since there was no answer, my parents, like many others, turned in a kind of desperate optimism to their children, to the future, making a promise to make a better world for us — making it warm and loving and safe.
A taste of honey, a better world
It was that message they conveyed to us as they held our hands so tightly on the way to synagogue. And it was that hope we eventually came to understand when we dipped slices of apple in honey at the start of our Rosh Hashanah meal. The symbolism was clear: the New Year would be sweet — filled with life’s treasures: to live beside and take care of those we love.
The wish was compounded when we dipped a slice of challah, the traditional holiday loaf, into honey as well. More honey, more sweetness, more love to go round and round. As I grew to adulthood, I have learned to value the rituals that merge so intimately with the sensory experiences of childhood: the chants of Hebrew prayers, joining us to our forefathers through the media of an ancient language and melodies; the trumpeting of the Shofar, calling us at once to awaken from our daily cynicism to awareness, from the betrayal of indifference to an embracing consciousness of each other’s needs.
From there it was all one. My parents interpreted the gifts of life and love as things to accept and share with joy, but also to remind us that in exchange, our obligation was to make the world a better place. To do so, they told us, it was important we remember the pain of the past, not letting the memory consume us, but making certain that it led us to make good and kind choices as we navigate the life we were given.
Their thoughts are echoed for me in the words of Anne Frank: “How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to start to improve the world.”
L’Shanah Tovah V’Metukah! To a good and sweet year for all!