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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/.
By Lela Casey
The first time I really celebrated Purim was when I was 9 years old on vacation in Israel with my family. I remember being in awe of the sea of kids pouring through the streets dressed in colorful costumes and shaking noise makers. It was a party like I’d never seen before and I was thrilled to join in.
My next Purim experience didn’t come until my junior year of college when I did a semester at Tel-Aviv University. The night of Purim, we all piled into an enormous bus which took us to Jerusalem where we drank rum punch and danced with students from all around the world until the sun came up. The spirit of that evening inspired me to be a different person than the thoughtful, fairly prudish girl that I had been until then. By the end of the night my angel costume had shifted into something more like a toga, I was more tipsy than I’d ever been before and I’d lost track of the number of boys I’d kissed. It was one of the happiest, most free-feeling nights of my life.
When my own children came along, I made a point of taking them to Purim festivities. As the Jewish partner in an interfaith marriage, I felt a responsibility to share with them that same freedom, that same lightness of the soul that I’d felt. And, while they did enjoy the celebrations, something about the holiday began to concern me.
Yes, there is a joy and lightness about Purim, but there is a darkness that few people ever mention. Purim is essentially a celebration of the blotting out of our enemies…and not just the infamous Haman. During Purim we drink to the destruction of the entire nation of Amalek, a genocide that is mandated to be read about in the Torah every year. It is, in essence, a celebration of a bloody act of retribution.
The first time that I learned of this part of the Purim story, I began to think back again to that night in Jerusalem. Yes, it was fun and free, but I also did things that I would never have done as my usual self. The spirit of the holiday, along with the alcohol and costumes, took me outside myself. Could the mandate to drink on Purim be, in essence, a way to shut out the “good” voices in your head? Could it be symbolic of how Biblical Jews had to silence those voices in order to commit genocide?
There are a lot of frightening things happening in the world today. People are being categorized by ethnicity and religion and immigrant status and painted as the enemy. There is a sweeping movement across America to blame others for our misfortune—a movement eerily familiar to other dark times in history. Extolling peace and acceptance is paramount on my mind right now.
As Purim gets closer, I find myself struggling with how to justify glorifying genocide with the desire to have my kids enjoy the joyousness of the holiday. Should I simply ignore that part of the story with them and focus on the merriment and hamentaschen (Purim cookies)? Or is it better to discuss the darkness of the day with them and let them come to their own conclusions? Perhaps should we just forgo Purim entirely?
One of my favorite things about Judaism is that it encourages questions and discussions. So, I ask you: Is it possible to celebrate the lightness of Purim while also addressing the dark side?