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Originally published Sept. 20, 2005.
The year my oldest daughter turned 4 was a pivotal one for our family--it was our first time celebrating the High Holy Days as our own family unit.
I was very excited--even as a child Rosh Hashanah was my favorite holiday. Let the other kids have their Hanukkah presents--I'd take my annual new party/shul dress, the funny-sounding shofar horns and special holiday songs any day. Perhaps it's because my September birthday often fell during the holidays, or that while my father was sick I got to go with different relatives and neighbors to a different synagogue. For whatever reason, my Jewish New Year memories are filled with happiness.
In our early years of marriage (read pre-children) we often flew from New Jersey to Michigan to visit my family for the holiday, some years we even ignored it altogether.
But in 2000, with a daughter finally old enough to understand and enjoy the holiday and a colicky baby who didn't travel well, we were determined to enjoy a traditional Rosh Hashanah--or as traditional as a fairly non-observant Jewish mother and Catholic father (he likes to call himself a "W and F" Catholic because he goes to church for weddings and funerals) can pull off.
Sleep deprived as I was, I had forgotten to defrost the chicken, and was still finishing up an article on deadline when I realized that my daughter's synagogue-based day care was closing early for the holiday. So my plans to cook were abandoned and on the way home from day care we drove through Boston Market and got roast chicken, mashed potatoes, stuffing--literally a moveable feast. Round challah, apples and Shabbat candles had been purchased previously. I got home, nursed the baby, set Rachel up with crayons, and then started in on slicing apples and pouring honey into a bowl.
Later, with the baby strapped into her bouncy seat we gathered for blessings, candle lighting and my favorite--the dipping. I love challah, I love apples, I love honey, and it's no wonder Rosh Hashanah has been a fave.
But nine-month-old Samantha couldn't have honey yet (because she might have inherited my allergy to bee stings and could have a severe reaction to honey) and my husband Keith, while enjoying challah, was appalled at the idea of ruining perfectly good bread with a gooey, sticky bee by-product. Four-year-old Rachel wrinkled her note and refused to even taste it.
We moved on and finished our meal. Then, while clearing the table I snapped at someone--either a child, the cat underfoot or Keith. Whatever the reply was, it set me off crying. I retreated to our bedroom while Keith cleaned up and put the children to bed.
Later, Keith asked me why I was so upset. At first I didn't even know. I thought about it and realized I felt lonely. Here I was, trying to celebrate a holiday I loved, yet I felt alone in the midst of the people I was closest too.
"I'm homesick," I said. "Rosh Hashanah is my favorite holiday. I love the songs, the honey and apples and you're not doing it. I want to go home."
But a quick trip from New Jersey to Michigan wasn't possible.
"Just because we don't like honey doesn't mean we can't enjoy the holiday with you," Keith said. "Can we use something besides honey?"
"But the holiday is about honey," I said, sniffling. Several sobs later I realized how wrong I was. The holiday is not about honey, but the new year.
The point is to think of a "sweet new year," I thought.
Conveniently enough, we have a grocery story about four blocks away. I went out that night and bought chocolate sauce, the kind you use to pour into milk for chocolate milk or on ice cream.
The next morning my kids were delighted to have challah and chocolate sauce washed down with chocolate milk for breakfast. It was a very sweet beginning to the year, indeed. That night we had Rosh Hashanah dinner again, and once more we used the chocolate sauce as a dip for apples and challah.
It might seem like a small thing, or a simple answer to a more complex problem, but it worked. I felt better because the people I was with, my new nuclear family, were able to enjoy my holiday with me. What mattered to me wasn't adhering to the letter of the law or tradition, but that we observed and enjoyed the holiday. Three years later, I feel we're a stronger family for having created our own ritual that my kids enjoy, similar to the way I enjoyed the rituals I had while growing up.
Chocolate sauce was such a big hit that my husband reminded me to get it the following year. We also added to our holiday tradition by singing "Happy Birthday"--to the world. My kids and my husband don't know many Hebrew songs. Right now their repertoire is pretty limited to the Passover and Hanukkah songs of "Draydel" and "Dayenu," but it's a start. "Happy Birthday" is one we all know well enough to sing, laugh, and usher in the new year.
This year I'm thinking of buying chocolate, strawberry and butterscotch sauce.