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My Grandma Harriet died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. She was beautiful, creative and could expertly apply her lipstick without a mirror. She was my favorite hug. She cooked up the yummiest tuna noodle casseroles and the tastiest matzah ball soup. She lived a long life full of family simchas (celebrations), fancy dinners out with my grandfather and travelling around the world. When I got the call that she passed away, I was sad, but grateful that she lived a long, rich life.
A week later, I found out that my colleague’s wife was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 37. N was vibrant, involved in the wider Jewish community and the mother of three kids. She was passionate about education and inclusivity. My heart broke when I read the news of her unexpected passing.
Death confounds me. After these losses, my theology was shaken up, once again. Why was my grandmother blessed with a sweet long life when people like N are tragically taken away from us so suddenly? How is it determined: Who shall live and who shall die?
We are moving into the High Holiday season in the Jewish calendar. The Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are a time of contemplation, reflection and spiritual awakening. The Shofar is sounded to pull us out of our sleepy routines and open our hearts. It is a time to deeply connect with ourselves. And it is a time to face our own mortality. In the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer, it is sung, “Who shall live on and who shall die.”
As a kid, I was taught that on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), we are either written in the book of Life or the Book of Death. And on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), our fates are sealed. Like many children, I pictured Gd as an old man in the sky, who looked exactly like Moses with a long white beard and a cane. My personified Gd lived above the clouds and wrote two lists each year: those who would live and those who would die. And I worked hard to be my best self so that I wouldn’t be added to that dreaded death list.
I have outgrown my childhood theology. It doesn’t serve me anymore. This simplistic theology that only the good are rewarded with long life contradicts with my understanding of the world.
I don’t know why people die when we do. I don’t understand why my grandmother got to live a long healthy life while N was taken from us too soon. I continue to grapple with death. The answers to this are bigger than me and beyond my comprehension.
What I do know is that the Gd of my understanding provides me comfort in the midst of uncertainty. I can lean on The-Abundant-One when I feel scared, lost and sad. When my grandmother passed away, I felt held by a nurturing presence. I experience Gd working through my community as they surround me and my family with love. When I learned of N’s death, I cried out to the Mystery. It felt unfair and unjust! My heart cracked open and I felt a deep pain. And yet, I experienced a sense of awe at the outpouring of support and strength from the wider community. The way in which she has been memorialized in countless stories is breathtaking. To me, that is Gd.
Today, I understand the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer to be about surrender. We are not in control. These words are a reminder of the cycle of life and death. How can I honor the ways in which death is always present? What legacies will live on? What old habits will die? This year, as I sing the line, “Who shall live and who shall die,” I will be reminded of my own mortality and how I choose to live my life this year.
My Facebook feed tends to get filled with rabbis and other Jewish professionals’ lives. This is the circle I run in. Around the holidays, lots of these people offer well wishes to their Facebook friends.
“To all my Jewish friends, may it be an easy fast.” What’s wrong with this statement? Anything? Am I too sensitive about language?
My friends were just trying to direct their message only to those who observe the Jewish holidays. Innocent enough. But when I read wishes like this I cringe. I cringe because many, many partners of Jews who are not themselves Jewish also fast (for example). They also sit in contemplative meditation for hours in synagogue. They celebrate lots of aspects of Jewish holidays. And, they don’t just go through the motions. They find participation to be personally edifying and meaningful. Not to mention that “going through the motions” is easier said than done. Try bringing yourself way out of a comfort zone by attending a religious service offered in another language with lots of foreign ethnic and cultural references. The experience, depending on the welcome one receives, the research one has done ahead of time and the mind-set one has, can be isolating, confusing and uncomfortable or interesting, inspiring and eye opening.
A wish to Jews for a happy holiday is not malicious or meant to leave out interfaith couples and families. But, it may be insensitive and potentially hurtful. It doesn’t take into account that the Jewish community is now made up of those brought up with Judaism, those newer to Judaism and those who are not Jewish at all, but who observe Jewish practices with their partner or family. This is our diverse, wonderful community. If we forget that a large number of the people in our pews and at our programs are not Jewish and fail to acknowledge and see these people for who they are and the contributions, insights and passion they can bring to our community, we are diluting our resources by a good percentage.
If we could change our thinking about who is in the Jewish community, our sensitivity would carry over when we meet with interfaith couples, listen to the journeys families are on, think about our worship experiences and pay attention to the language we use. If our wishes on Facebook and in person would be for anyone who will be part of a Jewish holiday experience to find beauty, redemption, meaning and sacred purpose and so much more, then we give the Jewish civilization the credit it deserves for being such a rich, inspiring way of life.
To all who find themselves in the Jewish holiday spirit this time of year, may you find happiness and peace.
This year on Rosh Hashanah, our synagogue tried something new. All of the kids were invited onto the bima to witness the blowing of the shofar. It was amazing to watch the kids’ faces while the shofar sounded. My daughter even jumped back a little at the sound initially. It was a sight to behold on many levels. First, I loved seeing all of the kids at the synagogue. Most of them were in awe of the Torahs, the Rabbi and the shofar. Second, when I spoke to my son later, he said he never realized that there were that many people at the synagogue. He seemed impressed that there were that many people observing the holidays. Since he attends a school with very few Jewish kids, he felt excited that “he wasn’t the only one” observing the holiday. Third, the Rabbi said that the twisting shape of the shofar is like life – there are ups and downs, twists and turns that keep going on a unique journey. Again, watching the kids comprehend this concept was gratifying.
I know that for a long time, synagogues would keep the kids in a different area of the building during services so they didn’t disrupt the adults and the prayers (I suspect the parents liked having a “break” from the kids, too). Some congregations create a group that prays and another group that discusses. There may be another group for the teenagers and another group for the toddlers. Unfortunately, some kids grow up thinking that synagogue is just for kids. I think that this is all fine and good but at some point, we should all be together.
I learn so much from the whole community: from my kids, from my friend’s 92- year-old-grandmother, and from the pleasant gentleman two rows back with a great smile. Our kids should see what their future looks like and we should look back on our childhood with wonderful memories. The good memories are what keep us going so we can manage the twists and turns of life.
Many people are part of the community of their neighborhood, preschool, elementary school, gym or office. I find that these communities are wonderful but fleeting; the people move, the kids grow up, the gym down the street offers a better deal or people get new jobs. The Jewish community is a little different on the holidays. No one has to send out an invitation, but lots of people show up to celebrate the holiday. We see families grow up and evolve. A hug from an old friend is commonplace. We may hear a tune that reminds us of a relative or humorous incident from childhood.
I know that many communities have a Jewish Community Center (JCC) which is a great place to find community. While I am not a member of a JCC, I find that my Jewish community IS my center. It is the most consistent presence in my life besides family. I don’t love everyone there but I enjoy a little something of everyone, young and old. Best of all, we all are collecting and reliving some very positive memories.
One of my favorite things about living in the Northeastern United States is apple picking. Relating to the Rosh Hashanah tradition of eating apples and honey, an apple picking event is a wonderful opportunity to build community.
In mid-September, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia co-sponsored an apple picking event on a Sunday morning in Chester County with jkidphilly. It was a beautiful day and the orchard (Highland Orchards) was a wonderful spot. I was fortunate enough to be working with Robyn Cohen from jkidphilly and we assisted the kids in making a fun craft.
Did you know that with a small plastic horn blower and a paper plate, kids can make their own shofar? The kids decorated the paper plates with apple stickers and crayons and behold, the shofars were fabulous. The kids could make some noise with their new shofars and it didn’t bother anyone! And if they got a little “energetic” there was a playground right next to our picnic tables for them to let off a little joyous energy.
The parents and kids were able to mingle and learn a little about the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. I particularly love the comparison of a shofar to an alarm clock—waking us up from our daily activities and alerting us to the new possibilities of the fall, a New Year and renewed spirit. There is something special about the fall sunshine on an orchard that warms the soul. Apples are so sweet and the kids love being involved in harvesting the fruits of their labor. There were over 25 families who attended the pre-Rosh Hashanah apple picking in Chester County. If you are interested in attending similar events, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know. We look forward to hearing from you!
The most chilling song I have ever heard is Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire.” His deep, haunting voice is perfect for the lyrics, which acknowledge that none of us knows how our lives will come to an end. In case we are morbidly curious, the song lists some possibilities: “Who by fire, who by water, who for his greed, who for his hunger.” And it gets darker: “Who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate…Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand.” For those familiar with the legendary Canadian singer/songwriter, it’s not the only time he takes us to that place we have been trying to avoid.
But this idea wasn’t actually his. Cohen, well versed in Jewish practice and liturgy, based these lyrics on a dramatic piece of the High Holy Day liturgy called the “Unetanetokef.” The prayer is named for its powerful, opening words, “Now, we declare the sacred power of this day.” The Unetanetokef brutally reminds us of how fragile we are by asking who, in the year to come, will live on and who shall die. Who will die by the sword, and who by the beast. It sounds like a dirge, adding to the drama of the prayer. The perfect melding of these two artful pieces, the prayer and the song, is when some synagogues sing the Unetanetokef to Cohen’s melody.
The tough part of this piece of liturgy, theologically speaking, is that it sounds like all of this is preordained: On Yom Kippur, the course of every life is sealed! I think the prayer is saying something else. In a world in which we think we are totally in control, we have to be reminded from time to time that we aren’t. The High Holy Days bring our mortality front and center.
From the Yom Kippur fast that makes us feel like we are barely alive to the custom of wearing white or even a kittel, a burial garment, we are asked at this time of year to face our mortality and fragility head on. Hopefully, that confrontation affects how we will enter the New Year and how we will live our lives. Both the prayer and Leonard Cohen’s version are a calling to keep it all in perspective and thank our lucky stars that we are alive another day.
P.S. If you haven’t heard the song, check out a great rendition from YouTube before the holidays:
As kids, we attended services with the adults since child-friendly services hadn’t been invented yet. It was long. Really long. Now I lead services and understand why there is so much liturgy. But as teenagers it was tough to sit attentively for that long. My sister always brought a book with her to synagogue. But it wasn’t to pass the time, and it was not just any book. She felt that during the High Holy Days, we should be exploring the depths of religious and philosophical literature about the meaning of life. It was usually someone like Buber, Frankl, Hegel or Heidegger.
She loved finding the same themes they wrote about in the prayer book, and every now and then she would point out to me some kernel of wisdom she’d found or question that came up for her in one book or the other and we would ponder that in whispers for a while. What are we here for? Is there such a thing as a soul? What happens when we die and what makes us so afraid of it? She understood the true meaning of the season: to contemplate life, mortality and purpose. As I grew up, I started to see Rosh Hashanah and especially Yom Kippur as Judaism’s personal therapy session. When do we to put aside entire days to just focus on ourselves and the meaning of life?
My sister taught me that the Holy Days are about asking the big questions of life and death. Those questions are imbedded in our liturgy, but it can be hard to tease them out. These days, there are new prayer books that contain insightful meditations and commentary on each page. If you go to services, allow your eyes to wander all over the page, and allow your mind to wander where it needs to go. Things that come up while sitting in services are probably coming up for a good reason, and are pointing you to the work you need to do this year. If you don’t attend services, there are lots of ways to get into the High Holy Day spirit.
One Jewish organization, Reboot, has a great suggestion for digging deeply. It is called 10Q, for “ten questions.” There are ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that are meant as a time to reflect on the year past and the year to come. 10Q puts a modern twist on this tradition and asks you (digitally) a big question every day during that period about your life plans, goals, relationships and how you relate to world events of the day. People of any background can use them to delve deeply with their broad, spiritual questions. And in case the craziness of the intervening year causes you to forget what matters most to you, they will send you your responses before Rosh Hashanah of 2015.
However you mark the days of reflection coming up, try to not let them just go by. Whether you spend these days in nature, in synagogue, at home or work, take some time to ask yourself the big questions.
As the High Holy Days approach, I like to start thinking about what I want to do differently next year, and that means atoning for last year’s sins. I find that if I wait for the act of Tashlich (tossing your sins, in the form of breadcrumbs into a flowing body of water) to think about my sins, I don’t give them very much thought, and I forget about things that might benefit from more reflection. Now is a great time to start thinking about the Jewish New Year and what you could have done better last year.
Thanks to the creative folks at G-dcast, you can now do some tossing of your sins ahead of time and VIRTUALLY! Check out the fun “eScapegoat” they set us up with, find out what goats have to do with Tashlich, and enter your sins at the bottom.
I always laugh when people say “the High Holy Days are early this year” or “Rosh Hashanah is late this year.” The fact is that Rosh Hashanah occurs the same time every year—on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. It’s never really “early” or “late”—it’s just where it should be! That being said, the first of Tishrei can be as early as September 5, or as late as October 5, on the Gregorian calendar. Which means that in 2014, when the first day of Rosh Hashanah is September 25(not the same week as Labor Day, as it was in 2013) many of us feel like we have more time to prepare for Rosh Hashanah than we did last year.
Here are seven suggestions for how your family can have fun getting in the mood for Rosh Hashanah:
1) Apples, apples and more apples: It’s fun to dip apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah as we wish for a sweet new year. But why just go to a grocery store and buy apples? One of my favorite activities to do with my family before the Jewish New Year is to go apple picking. At the orchard we go to, we take a hay ride out to the apple trees and then we fill our boxes with different kinds of apples. Later we come home and make a yummy apple cake for our Rosh Hashanah dinner and drink apple cider.
Did you ever notice that if you cut an apple right down the middle you see a star? There’s a great Rosh Hashanah story about this that’s fun for kids of all ages. I like the way Shira Kline tells the story on her website.
2) And don’t forget the honey: At the orchard where we go apple picking, there’s a really fun general store where they sell all kinds of fresh produce and delicious treats. They also sell those cool honey straws that come in all different flavors. Each year I let my kids buy a bunch of different flavored honey straws and we use them on Rosh Hashanah. They’re fun to give out to guests (or to take if we go to someone else’s house for a holiday meal).
As you prepare for Rosh Hashanah and start to think about dipping your apples in honey, it’s a great time to talk to your kids about how bees make honey. To learn about this from a dad who did some research after he couldn’t answer his daughter’s question about how bees make honey, check out Matt Shipman’s article How Do Bees Make Honey? (It’s Not Just Bee Barf). Or better yet, visit a beekeeper and learn about how honey’s made from an expert!
You can have lots of fun making beeswax candles to light as you welcome the holiday. For instructions on how to make your own beeswax candles click here.
3) Try some new fruits, too: There’s a great custom on the second night of Rosh Hashanah of eating a new fruit of the season; one you haven’t eaten yet this year. So you may want to pick another fruit as well if you can while you’re apple picking, or pick up a different fruit at a farmer’s market or the grocery store. It’s traditional to recite the Shehecheyanu blessing before eating the new fruit.
4) Mark a round challah: What kid (or adult) doesn’t love mixing the ingredients, kneading the dough and shaping it into a challah? While on Shabbat it’s traditional to have a braided challah, on Rosh Hashanah the challah should be round. Why round? Because it reminds us of the circle of life, as well as the cyclical nature of the passage of a year. For a YouTube video teaching three different ways to make a round challah, click here and get Rabbi Mychal Copeland’s recipe here.
5) Read Rosh Hashanah stories with your kids: It’s always fun in the weeks leading up to any holiday, religious or secular, to read books with your kids about the holiday. One Jewish grandmother I know takes out all of her children’s books about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur a few weeks before the holidays and puts them in a big basket that she keeps in her family room. Whenever her grandchildren come over, they pick out books from the basket to read with her. She does this before Passover, Sukkot and Thanksgiving, too, so that the book basket is often out and filled with Jewish or secular holiday books to read. For a list of PJ Library Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur books for kids up to 8 yearsold click here.
6) Make New Years cards: In today’s world where we do so much of our communicating by text and email, it’s especially fun to get a card in the mailbox. And it’s even more fun to make cards! Get out lots of craft materials (or even just crayons and paper) and let your kids make New Years cards that they can mail to family members and friends. And they don’t have to make the cards just for Jewish family members. Cards for family member who aren’t Jewish, letting them know that they’re being thought of and that they’re loved, will surely be appreciated any time of year.
7) Buy a Shofar and learn to blow it: Kids are always fascinated by the Shofar. Many synagogue gift shops sell Shofars, as do Judaica stores. You can also purchase them online. Once you have a Shofar, you can learn about the notes that are blown on Rosh Hashanah. For video instructions on how to blow the shofar, including the three traditional ritual blasts for the High Holy Days: tekiyah, shevarim and truah, click here.
Shana Tova U’Metukah. Have a happy and a sweet new year!
Is there something new you’re planning to do with your family in preparation for Rosh Hashanah this year? Are there activities you’ve done in the past that were fun? Please share your ideas below so that others can learn from what you’ve done.
Have you begun thinking about the high holidays yet? Do they usually seem to appear out of the mess of end-of-summer-start-of-school-year and you find yourself trying to catch your breath on the way to services? Wouldn’t it be nice to take a moment now and reflect on the coming new year? Enter Jewels of Elul:
As stated on their website, “There is a great Jewish tradition to dedicate the 29 days in the month of Elul to study and prepare for the coming high holy days. The time is supposed to challenge us to use each day as an opportunity for growth and discovery.
..For the past seven years I have collected short stories, anecdotes and introspections from some fascinating people.
We have collected these Jewels of Elul, from an eclectic group of people including President Barack Obama, Eli Winkelman, Desmond Tutu, the Dali Lama, Sarah Lefton, Eli Wiesel, Deepak Chopra, Pastor Rick Warren, Kirk Douglas, Rev. Ed Bacon, Rabbi David Wolpe, Ruth Messinger, Jeffrey Katzenberg and over 100 other inspired voices . . . well known and not so well known.
I invite you to make each day count. Join us is preparing for this most sacred time of year.
To sweet, inspired Holy Day of change.
I think this is a wonderful way to begin the new year, and encourage you to sign up for the daily emails, or purchase the booklet of all 29 which will benefit the work of a not-for-profit interfaith cultural center in Los Angeles. Learn more here.
On Yom Kippur this year, I had the pleasure of listening to a personal, heartfelt and inspiring sermon by Rabbi Rachel Saphire of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA. The sermon got my family thinking and talking and I thought you might enjoy it too. Rabbi Saphire has been kind enough to allow us to share this excerpt of her sermon, which is approximately the first half. Enjoy.
Whether you see it or not, you’ve made a choice to be here today. You may be thinking, “I don’t have a choice whether or not to observe Yom Kippur. It’s just what I do. It’s what I’ve always done.” You may observe in order to support your loved one or your family. Maybe you’re a teenager or child and your parents have simply told you, “You’re coming.” Either way: you’re here and that’s a big deal. And even if you may not realize you have, you’ve made that choice and THAT is a big deal, too.
I find this text to be symbolic. It is not only about choosing life in the physical sense (preserving our health), but I actually think it’s about choosing TO LIVE JEWISHLY in a meaningful way. For, the commandment to choose life is given as an instruction to connect to that which is sacred. Perhaps what’s most important is the fact that this strong charge does not explicitly say HOW we should choose to live Jewishly in a meaningful way. The text only states that this choice is not far out of reach “it is very close to you – in your mouth and in your heart.” What I think this really means is that the choice is within each and every one of us. It is upon us to choose for ourselves, from within our own being, how it is that we want to express our Jewish identity or connect to the Jewish community. And if that is the case, the pathway to choosing Jewish life may be different for each one of us! The point is that we each actively have to make the choice. Making this choice is a big deal.
The Torah portion also mentions that all of us stand before God on this day – every single one of us, no matter who we are – men, women, and children. The text also mentions that even the ger, the one who is not from the Israelite community and is not Jewish stands among us. Today, a ger tzedek, also refers to one who makes the choice to convert or join the Jewish community. We affirmatively call him/her a “Jew by Choice.” I think the Torah is teaching us that WE SHOULD ALL BE JEWS BY CHOICE! What would it look like if each and every one of us consciously took hold of our choice to be Jewish?
I’ve thought about this question from a very young age. I grew up in an interfaith family. My mom is Jewish and my dad was raised as a Christian. My parents made the decision to raise my twin brother and me as Jews. My mother also wanted my father to feel comfortable observing his own customs. What did that mean? Culturally, we celebrated Christmas at home. I have fond memories of decorating the tree, hanging holiday lights, putting up a stocking, listening to and singing carols, laying out cookies for Santa Claus, sitting down for a Christmas Eve dinner, and waking up to open presents.
I also remember my mother sharing her strong Jewish identity with us and teaching us to take pride in being Jewish. We celebrated Passover and Chanukah at home with active rituals. A few times a year, we lit the Shabbat candles. In my hometown, being Jewish was also ‘something different.’ My brother and I were the only Jewish kids in our grade and my mom was our school’s “Jewish mom.” She would go from room to room to teach about Chanukah and sometimes she even invited the class to our house.
All of these practices brought me joy. I knew that I was Jewish, but I also knew my father and his family members were not. I also liked to fit in among my classmates. And so, I matter-of-factly and quite simply called myself and considered myself to be “half-Jewish.”
Then, something began to change my perspective midway through elementary school. A new kid came to town. He was in the same grade as me, his grandparents lived up the street, and HE was JEWISH! Besides my brother, I had made my first Jewish friend. I began to learn about his family and their deeply-rooted Jewish practices. With joy and excitement, their extended family gathered for holidays, including festivals I had never experienced. Their traditions and rituals spanned generations. They went to temple together. Being Jewish even informed the way they ate and the things they talked about. I was fascinated by this new-found meaning and beauty that I experienced by having a Jewish friend.
I began to explore my own identity.
“Who am I really and what is important to me?”
And then the deep Jewish questions came up, too.
“If my friend is Jewish and he goes to temple, then why don’t I?”
“Can I celebrate the ‘new’ Jewish holidays that his family celebrates?”
And then a bit later as I began to visit religious school and temple functions with my friend…
“Mom, can I attend religious school, too?”
“Can you help me learn Hebrew?”
“Can we go to services?”
“How about a field trip to the Jewish gift shop?”
And then things like…
“Mom, why do we have a Christmas tree if we’re Jewish?”
“Can we have a youth group just like the Christian kids do?”
“Can I skip my soccer game on Yom Kippur?”
“Can I become
“Can I study with the rabbi more?”
And so I did – all of these things. My brother and I formed a youth group at our temple. And there we built our own sense of Jewish community. And I became Bat Mitzvah on my 17th birthday – With a new year of life came a new understanding of the depth and richness of Torah. And I decided that I would find my own sense of peace by attending Shabbat services every week if I could – that even meant skipping THE high school football game on Friday night.
These choices were my own, ones that I was proud to make and explore. Some choices were different than the ones my brother made and many were different than the ones my school friends made. But, they were mine -my own conscious and meaningful choices – ones that allowed me to explore my passions and the things that were important to ME. These choices brought me joy, connection, a sense of purpose and even the feeling of being known and loved. Even though I was born a Jew, it is for these reasons that I am a Jew by Choice. And it is because of my Jewish journey that I want each of you to have the same opportunity to make your own conscious Jewish choices today, every day, in the year ahead.
Instead of thinking of ourselves as the CHOSEN people (people for whom our destiny is chosen and dictated), we could become the CHOOSING people. We could choose to create a new Shabbat ritual for ourselves every week. We could choose to read more Jewish texts or books or explore the world of Jewish music. We could act in more concrete ways that heal our world. Or we could visit those who are lonely and in need. We could commit to teaching our children something of our own Jewish interest. We could share our own family’s history. We could question and explore our faith. If we could choose to do any of these types of things (the choices are endless)…Then, we would not be passive inheritors of our tradition, but rather active participants, consciously acting upon our choice to live Jewishly.