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Years ago, a colleague of mine told me that as a rabbi, I should try to make Judaism, “cool,” At the time, I knew I was put off by this comment, but only years later do I fully understand why. What I love about Judaism is that it is generally “uncool.” In fact, it is wonderfully weird. Sometimes it is edgy. Even counter-cultural. I am part of religious life because it is meaningful, not because it’s the hip thing to do on a Friday night.
An article caught my eye recently, entitled, Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’ The writer, Rachel Held Evans, criticizes flashy, trend-setting techniques to get millennials into churches. “The trick isn’t to make church cool,” she writes, “it’s to keep worship weird.” She goes on to share what most attracts her and other young bloggers to religious life. “I do not want to be entertained…I want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.” She is intrigued by “those strange rituals and traditions” that have been practiced in her tradition for thousands of years.
Sometimes as a Jewish leader, I feel pressure to make Judaism seem cool. But the fact is—I want to keep Judaism wonderfully weird. Take this season of the High Holidays. My favorite parts of the liturgy and practice at this sacred time of year often appear the strangest, and take some time to get used to. One of the rarest is the practice of kneeling and then putting my face to the ground during a certain prayer during Rosh Hashanah; prostrating myself like a child’s pose in yoga, feeling the ground beneath me and my vulnerability as a human being. I relish this because I want, at that moment, to feel a bit small with a sense of the grandeur of the world outside of me. My family loves the ritual of tashlich. We throw breadcrumbs into a creek to symbolize our shortcomings over the past year—with full knowledge that this ritual was borne out of a desire to appease water demons.
When sukkot begins, I shake the lulav: that strange collection of four natural species we bring together inside our little autumn hut (sukkah). Who doesn’t feel a little awkward shaking it in all directions? I love this ancient, agricultural ritual for all of its quirkiness. It connects me to the earth. It reminds me how interdependent we are with the natural world, and I become cognizant that the livelihood of others is tied to the whims of the weather more than mine will ever be.
It is not, actually, the endurance of the rituals alone that propels me to keep practicing them. They are relevant to me because they contain kernels of wisdom, and I bring my contemporary consciousness to them as Jews always have. They are not flashy or slick, hip or even always fun. Some are even difficult. But they are authentic.
The famous Rav Kook wrote that, “The old becomes new, and the new becomes holy.” That is what an “ancient-future” community looks like; always looking back to discover the sources of our wisdom while we discern how that tradition continues to inform us in the present day. That doesn’t mean that we should keep doing exactly what we always did, or in exactly the same way. Our job is to renew and reconstruct where necessary, and make the ancient come alive in a new generation with contemporary relevance.
Whether Jewish practice is new to you or familiar, whether this is your first High Holiday season or your fiftieth, embrace the quirkiness. Try something new. Don’t worry if it’s not all flashy, or if you find that you need to slow down your mind to take it in. Hopefully, the experience will bring introspection, meaning and depth to your life. Above all, find out why we practice the way we do. Ask questions. Most people probably have the same questions you do. Reshape rituals and add your own flavor. As Evans puts it, “[Rituals] don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”
One of my favorite children’s books for Yom Kippur is Jacqueline Jules’ The Hardest Word: A Yom Kippur Story. It’s about the Ziz, an enormous bird with dark red wings and a purple forehead. The Ziz’s giant wings are always knocking things over. One day, after the Ziz mistakenly knocks over a big tree with his wings and the tree then knocks over another tree, which smashes a children’s vegetable garden, the Ziz goes to God and asks God how he can make things better.
God instructs the Ziz to search the earth and bring back “the hardest word.” The Ziz stretches out his big red wings and goes off to search, coming back to God over one hundred times with a variety of words. Each time God sends the Ziz back out, insisting that there is still a harder word.
Finally, the Ziz, discouraged, flies back for one last discussion with God:
“What word did you bring this time?” asks God.
“No word,” the Ziz says quietly.
“No word?” God asks.
“No,” the Ziz says sadly. “I’ve come to say I’m sorry. I can’t find the hardest word.”
“You can’t?” God asks.
“No,” Ziz shakes his head. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” God asks.
“Yes.” Ziz nods his big purple head. “I’m sorry.”
“Good job!” God says. “You found the hardest word.”
“I did?” wonders the Ziz. At this point, the Ziz is very confused.
“Yes,” God says. “The hardest word is Sorry. While the other words you brought were hard, Sorry is the hardest.”
I love the story of the Ziz because it draws our attention to a universal aspect of human nature: the difficulty of apologizing. Elton John pointed out this fundamental truth years ago with the title to his song “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.” And if you’re like me and you’re old enough to remember the TV show Happy Days, you may recall how Fonzie, the cool guy who all the guys wanted to be like and all the girls wanted to date, struggled whenever he had to even admit that he was wrong, let alone apologize. In one episode, when Mrs. Cunningham, a woman Fonzie greatly respects who’s like a surrogate mother to him, tells him that he has to be an adult and apologize to a guy named Roger, Fonzie finally says: “Alright look, I went a little nutso, alright. So the whole thing was my fuhvv-vu-vu…and I’m really suzz-zzz-zzz. Alright?”
Apologizing was SO HARD for Fonzie that he couldn’t even pronounce the word “sorry.” I, for one, can relate. And I know that I’m not alone. Mental health professionals have pointed out that many people view apologizing as a sign of weakness. The perception is that the person who apologizes is the “loser,” whereas the person who receives the apology is the “winner.” Apologizing can make us feel vulnerable—like we’re losing power, or even control. Like Fonzie, most of us don’t like the feeling of not being in control—too often we let our pride get in the way and prevent us from apologizing.
But in reality, apologizing isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It takes strength to exhibit the moral character necessary to offer an apology, thereby admitting that you’ve hurt someone or done something wrong.
And think about it: Have you ever regretted apologizing to someone? If you’re like me, then you probably haven’t, or at least not often. For most of us, the time leading up to offering an apology is stressful, but once we’ve gotten over the hump of saying “I’m sorry,” it’s usually a big relief. In the best of situations, an apology is accepted. But even when an apology isn’t accepted, when it’s offered sincerely, we at least have the consolation of knowing that we’ve tried to make things better.
On the other hand, have you ever regretted NOT apologizing to someone? For most of us, the answer to this question is “yes.” Surely, if we take the time to think about it, we can all point to times when we didn’t say “I’m sorry,” even though we now wish we had.
The Jewish New Year is an ideal time to reflect on the year that has just passed and think about those people to whom we owe apologies. Jewish tradition urges us to recount the people we’ve wronged in the past year and to apologize and ask for forgiveness before Yom Kippur. “Sorry” may be the hardest word, but it also has the potential to be one of the most powerful words—a word of restoration, a word of healing and a word of starting over.
I can think of several people I want to apologize to before Yom Kippur for things I’ve done in the past year: my husband; my children; some friends and colleagues. I know that apologizing won’t be easy, but I also know that it’s worth it, and that the year ahead will be better because of it.
What about you? Have you ever regretted apologizing? Have you ever regretted NOT apologizing? Do you plan to apologize to anyone in preparation for Yom Kippur?
I have always loved Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They were among the few Jewish holidays I remember celebrating as a child, and I can still picture the Post-It notes my mom would put in the various dishes as she was setting up for Rosh Hashanah dinner to help her remember which kugel would go in which dish. I loved the first sweet taste of apples and challah dipped in honey for the new year, and sitting in that large hotel ballroom (where my synagogue held its High Holy Day services in order to accommodate the larger crowd) listening to our beloved rabbi declare after every song “this is my favorite one.”
And for Yom Kippur, my family (including all of the “cousins”—whether or not we were related) would gather to break the fast. I looked forward to these two holidays every year, less for their religious significance and more for the time spent together with family and community. When I moved out of my family home in college and in the years after, I continued many of these traditions and traveled home when possible to spend this joyous time with my family. And then last year, everything changed. I had twins two short months before Rosh Hashanah.
During a time when I would normally be booking airline tickets or menu planning or sermon writing, I was just trying to stay afloat, learning how to be a new mom of twins and a new rabbi, all on very little sleep. They were born on July 2 and we spent the Fourth of July in the hospital; our first holiday as a family passed without any mention. Those first two months were beyond difficult for me physically and emotionally. Every day felt like an eternity, but September crept up on us out of the blue and we had no idea what to do for the High Holy Days.
We arranged childcare for Rosh Hashanah morning service, and decided to switch off for Yom Kippur services. We also planned on switching off for the evening services: My husband would go to erev (the first night of) Rosh Hashanah and I would go to Kol Nidre (the first night of Yom Kippur). It was my first night alone with my babies, and it did not go well. My husband ended up leaving services early to come and help me with them, and by the next morning we were exhausted and in no mood to pray or celebrate with community. But we had a sitter and we went to services together, our first time alone together out of the house since the twins were born. I had to leave services twice in order to pump breastmilk and we ended up leaving before services were over to get home in time to relieve the sitter.
Am I glad I went? No. Did I have a fulfilling and joyful Rosh Hashanah last year? No. I tried so hard to recreate the experience I used to have, that I completely missed the point of the holiday. For Yom Kippur we decided to put the kids to bed and watch services live online. I fell asleep halfway through. My experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from last year left me disappointed, sad and lonely.
I vowed to make this year different. My twins are 14 months old now, I am away from them every day, I sleep seven hours a night and I can finally create the experience I want. So how is it that two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, my husband and I just decided what we are going to do?
We can’t follow the prescribed routine of spending all day in synagogue praying and singing and then fasting. So what can we do as a family? Should we leave our kids with the nanny and celebrate the holidays without them? Should we skip the adult services and only go to the kid’s service? Are they even old enough to “get” it?
These holidays are so important to me, but how can I honor my own need for celebration and introspection while also including my kids? Is it OK to be selfish on the High Holy Days?
I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but I am talking to other families about how they do it, and then trying some things out for my family. Part of the joy of the holidays is seeing it through my children’s eyes and that is the lens through which I am trying to view Rosh Hashanah this year. Yesterday my babies heard the shofar for the first time and were equally excited and afraid—the exact emotions that the sound of the shofar should evoke from all of us. We are planning on attending adult services together and bringing the kids to the tot service later in the day, but also being prepared for the fact that when you have kids, plans can change in an instant.
Rosh Hashanah is about celebrating a new year and sharing the sweetness with our family and friends. Yom Kippur is about looking deep within and finding areas for improvement in my own character to better myself, my family and the world around me. By reflecting on my experience of past High Holy Days, and adjusting this years’ experience I can better serve myself and my family, thus teaching my children the most important values I want to pass on to them. We are honoring past traditions and hoping to create some new ones together.
For those of you who are parents navigating the High Holy Days, check out our Celebrating the High Holy Days with Kids booklet and our Guide to the High Holy Days, including sections on family, school, activities and more.
It was 2:56 AM when I heard, “Mooooomy…I NEED you…” When I went into my 6-year-old’s room, feeling frustrated and annoyed, she looked right at me and said with a clear, unwavering voice, “It’s inappropriate when you tell other people that I don’t stay in my bed all night.” My heart skipped a beat. “You’re right,” I said. “Thank you for telling me how you feel. I am sorry I embarrassed you. I will not share personal information like that again.”
My child is forming a sense of self and her own reputation. She has self-worth and self-respect.
As I sit for hours in prayer this coming High Holiday season, I will pray that I can do a better job of finding my own personal outlets for my frustrations and angst. I will pray that I uplift my children. I will wonder how to offer encouragement that inspires rather than using mocking to urge behavioral shifts, which is demeaning. I will pledge to talk less and listen more. I will vow to yell less. I will marvel at the mother I am, the wife I try to be and the rabbi I hope I am. I will think about the kind of year I want it to be.
This year, I will challenge myself not to rush my children to move faster to get to an after-school activity which is supposed to be life enhancing for them. Rushing them and causing stress takes away from the reason we are doing of the activity in the first place. I will remind myself to be disciplined in my spending: to buy fewer toys and “stuff” and to declutter our house and our lives. (Physically getting rid of stuff is a major Passover theme, but a little spiritual fall soul cleansing is good, too.)
If you find yourself in communal prayer over Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, and you are bored, distracted, hungry or having trouble with all of the Hebrew or the images of God as King, think about the idea of “chet.” This is a word you will hear a lot in the liturgy. It is translated as sin and is an archer’s term for “missing the mark.” The High Holidays are a time to re-calibrate our aim. For sins against God, such as ignoring the Sabbath (a chance to rest and refresh, to re-prioritize, to reboot and connect to friends and family), God will forgive my trespass. But, for sins against others, I need to make amends. I need to do better.
As we all know, our children are our best mirrors. When our children tell us to put our phones down and when our children tell us we have embarrassed them, then it’s time to re-calibrate and aim again.
As the ethical teachings of our ancestors explains: “Ben Zoma said, ‘Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone,’ as it is said, ‘From all who would teach me, have I gained understanding.’”
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.
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 email@example.com 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.