The Sweet New Year
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
Each year, just at a time when the year takes a turn from summer into fall, I begin to think about cycles of life, of endings and beginnings. There is the bittersweet loss of summer — with all its dreams of possibility — mixed with the anticipation of a bright, crisp autumn to come.
For me, as for other Jews, there is something else added to the mix: Rosh Hashonah comes offering a clean slate for future days, even as it moves us toward self-analysis. While pulled toward the fulfillment of personal commitments, we are suddenly facing a whole new beginning. This year (5774 on the Jewish calendar), the holiday observed by Jews all over the world, began at sunset on Sept. 4.
As a child, I learned that autumn not only concluded summer’s fun, but that it brought us a chance to celebrate “the birthday of the world” — even as we examined the kind of lives we had lived during the previous year.
“The birthday of the world” was a phrase that fascinated my 10- or 12-year old self; it was found in the prayer book, repeated after each blowing of the shofar (the ram’s horn that calls people to repentance and prayer). I often found myself whispering “Happy Birthday, World,” concealed by the chanting of Hebrew prayers all around. For me, as for many family and friends, the process continues — weaving traditions and rituals into personal memories of parents and grandparents, most of whom are now gone.
The sound of young voices
However, we continue to be blessed by new generations bringing laughter and the song of young voices, and also reminding us of the continuity of traditions.
Each year at this time, in an effort to describe them in an essay, I find myself re-examining these traditions, trying not to be repetitious in each year’s retelling —although repetition seems to be one of the threads of tradition. This year, as I explain my situation to our two bubbly 11-year old granddaughters, Dvora and Ruby, they quickly hunker down to offer me their perspectives on what we all agree are the two most important holidays of the Jewish calendar — Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement, which this year begins on Friday, Sept. 13).
Dvora seems to feel the best way to describe Rosh Hashonah is to find common elements with the religions of some of her friends. She says, “I think what happens [starting with Rosh Hashonah] is the Jewish version of confession. We acknowledge our faults.” She likes the idea of comparing Jewish practices with those of others. “I like to compare what I do to what they [my friends] do.”
Ruby adds, “And it is a celebration, but we take time to think about making ourselves better.” Her sister agrees and says, “It’s time to clear your record. We think about what we did [during the past year], and then how to improve. “
Ruby continues, “The 10 days after Rosh Hashonah are sort of special because, first of all, you’re celebrating Rosh Hashonah, which is the new year and leading up to Yom Kippur, which is a more serious holiday, because we’re supposed to think …” I pedantically interject, “Yes, those 10 days — they’re sometimes called ‘days of awe.’”
We get to eat honey!
This time Dvora picks up the thread, “If we think about our faults, then it’s a chance to start over.” She also wants to talk about how the holidays may have changed: “In the olden days, Rosh Hashonah was more serious as a holiday. Today, it’s more …”
“We get to eat honey,” Ruby interrupts, admitting she doesn’t like apples, which are usually dipped into the honey, but adds enthusiastically, “I love the honey!” They both chime in that the honey symbolizes everyone’s wish to have a sweet new year.
The girls then describe their feelings about going to services at Temple. “It feels like a lot of services,” Dvora says. Sometime they take a break, going out of the sanctuary, they explain, and into the library, “Where you can still hear the services over speakers.” Once, Ruby says, “We were playing with a little friend when someone rudely came in and told us we should go to youth services, which we didn’t want to do.”
I don’t think fast enough, to share what I did when I was their age. When I grew restless sitting in services with my Mom, I’d take out a tissue and a rubber band (I always seemed to have one or two in my pocket), and fashion a kind of pathetically ghost-like wisp of a doll. Faceless and all drapery, she helped me keep from fidgeting too much and to get through Orthodox services, which could often seem endless to a young child. I’m not sure how my version of a pretend companion might work with children today.
The timing of a New Year
When I ask the girls what they think about the timing of this New Year coming as it does in the fall, Dvora says, “I think it is a good time because the leaves are changing.” Her response makes me recall the mile and a half walk to synagogue with my parents — with my sisters and brother and I always kicking up autumn leaves.
Ruby adds, “It’s a better time for a new year because there’s the harvest time and you gather your produce … like Mommy from her garden.” Dvora says, “And it’s the start of a new year at school.” I add something about how academic years usually begin in autumn and how that will continue right through college—other new beginnings awaiting them.
The talk then turns to holiday foods, especially those they particularly enjoy. “The best part is being with family and friends,” Ruby says, with Dvora nodding in agreement. “Especially at holiday dinners,’ Dvora says, “where my favorite foods are …” Ruby interjects, “Mommy’s kugel (a noodle casserole often made with raisins and other fruit, cinnamon and sugar) is the best!”
“And don’t forget mommy’s challahs, they’re sumptuous!” Dvora adds. I ask if she means scrumptious, but she insists on sumptuous, which is definitely consistent with her inclination to come back for seconds and thirds.
For myself, I am reminded of Pete Seeger’s adaptation of the famous passages from Ecclesiastes, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” in which he captures exactly that sense of connection between generations — between our parents and our grandchildren — a sense of life’s cycles uniting life and death, of old dreams reemerging in new dreamers, of endings dissolving into new beginnings and of the hope eternally offered in the promise of a New Year.
And not to forget what Dvora and Ruby’s “taste of honey” offers all of us, friends and family alike — the promise of a sweet year to come.