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By Jessica Tobacman
Common birthday gifts include standard prayers sung to melodies old and new, and foods that are as old as our great-grandparents with tweaks as young as the babies celebrating this holiday for the first time.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we have a chance to step back and look more closely at the path before us.
When I was growing up, I’d sit down to a holiday dinner, which included brisket and tsimmes, with my parents and two brothers. Now a cantorial soloist with little time to spare on the evening Rosh Hashanah begins, I’m grateful for the Wendy’s burgers my husband buys so we can sit down together, albeit briefly, and remind ourselves that the holiday isn’t just about getting to services with a few minutes to spare. Instead, he reminds us both that family time is integral to the High Holidays. I’m fortunate that my husband, who isn’t Jewish, almost always attends the services I lead, during which he pores over the English translations of the Torah and Haftarah portions and reads aloud with the congregation when they pray in English. These may seem like small actions within the larger context of a service or Judaism itself, but he helps fit the vital pieces of family, community and prayer into a much larger Jewish puzzle.
My parents set the precedent early on in my childhood that the secular New Year would always begin with a family dinner before any other non-family plans came into play. After dinner all bets were off, as the focus tended to be on where you were, and with whom, when the clock struck 12.
For the Jewish New Year, however, the holiday is always more of a kaleidoscope as you twist the end and see diamonds filled with families praying and singing together in communal services.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are arguably the two most important yearly holidays on the Jewish calendar. While the name of the first holiday translates to “head (rosh) of the year (hashanah),” the Day of Atonement is also about the “rosh.” It calls for paying attention to it in a different way, as we eat only in a spiritual sense, fasting for what amounts to about 25 hours.
One of the goals of the long fast is to attain spiritual clarity as a group by taking a break from the material world. Another is to build a sense of community as each of us pulls away from the rest of the world and toward Jewish worship simultaneously, for a common cause.
Judaism tells us to fast on Yom Kippur, unless you’re very young, pregnant, elderly or have a medical condition. Indeed, we refrain from eating as a community. In certain prayers, like “Sh’ma Koleinu,” the plural ending of “nu” is used to show how Jews take responsibility for one another and how important community is. The Jewish people have been persecuted and driven out from the lands they have inhabited on many occasions, including the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. So it’s no wonder we’ve got a bit of a community mentality, despite the pretty accurate idea that if there are two Jews in a room, they generally have three opinions.
The number “three” is a lamppost lighting the way forward during the High Holy Days: To be inscribed in the Book of Life, we need to repent, pray and perform good deeds, as the prayer “U’t’shuvah” states.
The good thing about the High Holidays is there are plenty of opportunities to do all three. Congregations often have food drives, where bringing nonperishable items to services as donations is commonplace. Doing tefillah (prayer) is the modern substitute for sacrifices and is integral to High Holy Day services. And performing t’shuvah (repentance) is a huge reason we go to synagogue in the first place.
Recently, I started the practice of writing gratitude emails, thanking the people in my life for their good deeds. Each message evokes a positive sense of the relationship, bringing it back to ground zero if something has gone awry in the past or if we simply need a fresh start with the new year coming. During this time of year, I suggest combining the idea of gratitude emails with one of sending messages asking for forgiveness. It has the potential to reorganize your life and your relationships so you have a better sense of how to move forward as we start the year 5777.
If nothing else, it’s a great time to reach out to those you care about and reconnect during this potentially sweet, nostalgic time of year. It might be time for a reboot, or simply a chance to celebrate the beautiful world we live in.
To find out more about Jessica, visit her website at http://www.jessicaleestudio.com/.
This blog post was reprinted with permission from Red Said What?
By Jennifer Reinharz
After Hurricane Sandy, roughly six weeks post Rosh Hashanah 2012, we temporarily moved into my in-laws’ apartment. The building is home to a number of observant Jewish families, my in-laws included.
Waiting in the laundry room, I noticed a grandma folding clothes while her four-ish year old twin grandchildren, a boy and girl played nearby.
“I’m going to sing a Rosh Hashanah song,” announced the light eyed little guy.
After he got a few lines into his song I said, “That’s a nice tune.”
“He’s a good singer,” Grandma replied.
“Yes. I haven’t heard that one before.”
Right then his sister whipped her auburn curls, looked me dead in the eye and declared, “That’s because you’re not Jewish.
“Watch what you say to people!” Grandma barked.
Watch what you teach her, I thought.
I bit my lip and explained, “The Rosh Hashanah song I know is different. It goes like this…”
I sang a few lines of my holiday ditty. Thankfully the dryer’s buzzer went off. I took my clothes, wished them a good day and left – fuming.
Why do I have to be Jewish to know a Rosh Hashanah song? Why did the girl assume I was different than she? We were in the laundry room, not synagogue and it wasn’t Shabbat. Could she really have drawn her conclusion simply because I was dressed less conservatively than her grandmother?
It wasn’t clear.
What was clear was this little girl had been taught either directly or indirectly to identify, judge, and draw a conclusion about a person based on one’s appearance relative to the other grown-ups in her life. As a Christian woman married to a Jewish man who takes pride in raising Jewish children, I felt offended and sad.
This week, my family will celebrate the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time of reflection and new beginnings. Whether you observe or not, perhaps it’s a good time for us to think about the symbolic gestures we feel bring us closer to God. Although seemingly benign when practiced with a similar group, the question remains;
Do these gestures create an unhealthy divide, particularly when our children form false and hurtful conclusions based on them?
When all is said and done, I personally don’t think God gives a rat’s ass about what clothes we wore, the food we ate, the holidays we observed, or how many times a day we prayed.
It is how we view and treat each other while we are here that matters.
But let’s be realistic; life is wonderfully diverse and so our lifestyles will vary and symbols sustain. So in an effort to close the gap, let’s be mindful about consistently teaching young people that all religious and cultural perspectives are valid and deserve respect.
Grandma, you and I may have different ways of approaching our day to day living, but my hope is that we embody the same values. With this New Year upon us, let’s show our children that when we look beyond the laundry room, we are all mishpacha.
Jennifer Reinharz writes for children; blogs for grown ups; is a teacher, CrossFitter and Mom. She is a 2015 BlogHer Voice of the Year and creator of the personal essay blog, Red said what? Her work has also appeared in Brain, Child, Mamalode and Club Mid. Visit her on Twitter and Facebook.