2018-09-06 / Around Town

Happy 5779!

By P. Udoma

That’s the year we’re actually in, according to the Jewish calendar. And instead of saying “Happy New Year!” to Jewish friends on Rosh Hashanah, which occurs sundown on Sept. 9 to sundown on Sept. 11, you might say, “L’Shanah Tovah!”

“Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement, sundown on Sept. 18 to sundown Sept. 19], are golden opportunities to evaluate our lives, and to check on the state of our planet,” says Rabbi Marc Mandel of the city’s Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the United States. “Ultimately, it is mankind that is responsible for the well-being of our surroundings.”

Rosh Hashanah, the first part of the holidays, is somewhat similar to New Year’s Eve and Day, except that it commemorates the creation of the world, not just the start of a new year, and marks the beginning of the Days of Awe, a 10-day period of introspection and repentance that culminates in the Yom Kippur holy day.

The two holidays, the “high holy days” or “high holidays” for religious Jews and a time for celebration and introspection for secular (non-religious) Jews, are a time of family gatherings, special meals, sweet foods and a mix of joyous and solemn rituals.

One ritual around the world is the blowing of the shofar, or ram’s horn. “The shofar being sounded,” says Margo Vale, a trustee of Temple Shalom in Middletown, “is to remind worshippers of the holiday’s solemnity and to sincerely repent and do better in the new year.”

Another ritual, “tashlich,” involves tossing one’s transgressions, or sins, symbolized by crumbs of bread, into a body of water. Some experience the ritual as profoundly moving. Temple Shalom hosts tashlich this year on the morning of Sept. 10. “We will take a short walk to Bailey’s Brook and throw away our sins,” says Vale, and asks that participants bring bread or crackers.

And of course, what would a New Year’s celebration be without eating!

In “The Spiritual Meaning of The Food on Your Rosh Hashanah Table,” Carol Kuruvilla of the Huffington Post writes that a typical Rosh Hashanah meal includes food “that reflects an appetite for happy, prosperous days to come,” and interviews Naomi Ross, an instructor at the Brooklyn-based Center for Kosher Culinary Arts.

Apples, says Ross, are considered by Jews to be “the perfect fruit,” and “mesmerizing to all the senses.”

The Midrash, Kuruvilla reminds us, which is a commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures, “describes the Garden of Eden as having the sweet scent of an apple orchard.”

Fish will also be found on the Rosh Hashanah table, as they represent abundance. And in my family, chicken soup with matzoh balls, and sweet foods like carrots cooked in maple syrup, and a creamy pudding called “kugel,” made with noodles and raisins.

On Yom Kippur, there is no eating. Many Jews fast from sunset the evening before, “Erev” Yom Kippur, until sundown the next day.

Some will also gather to sing the “Kol Nidre,” that night before, an Aramaic prayer annulling vows made before God. There is ancient significance to this declaration, which came about as the result of Jews having been forced to swear fealty to Christianity or Islam.

I recall a Kol Nidre service I attended many years ago at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. It was sundown, and we were in the upper level of the building, all the walls and ceiling made of windows. Candles came up as the lights went off for the next 24 hours, and in the splash of a red-orange sunset-sky, birds in black silhouette swooped above and all around us as the cantors and Rabbi began to sing the haunting song.

In my family, a Reform Jewish one, we did not go to school (in New York the schools were closed to honor the Jewish citizens) or watch television on Yom Kippur, and my mother asked us to think about and write down what we saw as areas in the past year where we felt we could have done, been, or said better, and what we might improve for the following year.

A similar introspection takes place at Touro. “The community joins together to affirm our commitment to bettering ourselves and working together,” says Mandel, “to make sure that our short journey on this planet has a lasting impact.”

There is no one way to celebrate the New Year or atone on Yom Kippur, for there are so many different kinds of Jews. Some are Conservative, some Reform, some Reconstructionist, some Jewish Renewal. Some Jews are secular, seeing themselves as Jews by culture, ethnicity, bloodline or tribe. Some Jews are Ashkenazi (Eastern European) and some Sephardic (from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East). And there are Chinese Jews and Jews from India.

No matter how you celebrate or worship, however, the high holidays can be seen as a declaration and recollection of responsibility.

“On these holidays we acknowledge the gift of life and we accept the responsibility to partner with God in the act of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world,” Mandel says. “These are actually joyous days because all humans search for meaning.”

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