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First Rosh Hashanah in Buenos Aires

How I Expected to Survive and Actually Thrived

September 10, 2009

We had been friends for two years and dating for about four months when our first Rosh Hashanah together came up. Springtime was almost there--we live in Buenos Aires--you could just feel it in the air, despite still cold mornings and evenings. My boyfriend was Jewish and I was not, but that was barely an issue. We were madly in love and bursting with bliss at our brand new relationship. He celebrated Rosh Hashanah, I celebrated Christmas, though in a very secular way. We would share those celebrations with each other's

Lily bouquet
"I decided I could not go wrong with flowers, so I chose a lovely lily bouquet, wrote a simple 'For a year full of peace' and had it sent to my--now--mother in law's."

family: we just took that for granted and gave it no further thought.

But then, on that sunny September morning, it dawned on me that this would be our first religious holiday together and it was likely to be important, both for him and his family. What was the etiquette? What should I expect? What should I wear? Questions started popping into my mind, one after the other. We both knew this relationship was going to be big, so I wanted to make a good impression with my in-laws, but I did not want to look like I was trying too hard.

To make things slightly more difficult, my boyfriend was supposed to take the final exam of his engineering degree that very day and, understandably, the fact that a new Rosh Hashanah was starting that evening was far, far from his mind.

So there I was, on my own, trying to figure out how to look savvy, casual and respectful of a holiday I knew little about, besides the general notion that it was the "Jewish New Year."

I hit the Internet, but the tons of information available were just too much. I did, however, confirm that Rosh Hashanah was big. People ate apples and honey and greeted each other L'Shanah Tovah (OK, I could manage that.) It marked the beginning of the Yamim Noraim, whatever that was.

Later that evening, I understood that, like in any other field, information is helpful but it can never replace actual experience. Back then, I just came to terms with the fact that it was impossible for me to learn everything there was to know about this holiday within one morning. (Eight years later, I know a lifetime is not enough.) I decided to trust my own common sense and let go.

First thing I did was choose a present to honor the family. What was appropriate for such a new relationship? I decided I could not go wrong with flowers, so I chose a lovely lily bouquet, wrote a simple "For a year full of peace" and had it sent to my--now--mother in law's. I chose a simple yet elegant skirt and blouse outfit. A couple of hours later, my boyfriend called, ecstatic: he would start a new year as a brand new engineer!

He picked me up and we went to his mother's, who was hosting a reception for about 30 people. We had a great time talking around and tasting some delicious finger food while we waited for everybody to return from the synagogue. When they arrived, we gathered around the table and then the unfamiliar started. All men put on kippot, including, of course, my boyfriend. I had not seen him wear one many times.

My boyfriend's sister in law said the candle blessing, covering her eyes and speaking words that then sounded very strange. My boyfriend was by my side, quietly holding my hand. Everybody else seemed to know what was happening. I clung to his hand. But then, he was called to say the blessing of the wine and, again, I was on my own. He said the Kiddush (in Hebrew, of course) and passed the silver cup around. Then he looked at me and gave me a quiet smile I will never forget. I felt he was, in a way, saying, "this is also me" and we were sharing a treasure.

The ceremony was just starting and I did not know what next. My future mother-in-law's husband came to my side and speaking softly so as not to interrupt the blessings, explained every symbol (the apples, the round challah, the honey) so I did not miss anything. It was a lovely gesture and he made me feel completely at home with it. After that, we had dinner and I felt completely in tune with the spirit of goodwill and celebration. It stayed with me for many days.

As I write, I recall all those feelings and that warmth that seemed to embrace us all during that simple ceremony. I remember, especially, how I had thought I had to have everything figured out in advance (not uncommon in me, I must confess) and found so much depth and beauty in the very act of sharing and experiencing. My first Rosh Hashanah was a milestone in my spiritual life. There was something to the simplicity and wisdom of those cherished traditions that made me think "I want that." Since then, every Rosh Hashanah has been to me a true opportunity for reflection and "balance of the soul." Over the years, we have also included my own parents and sisters in this celebration, now eagerly awaited by all. We are lucky enough to have families that love us, supported our relationship and respected our choices.

Rosh Hashanah is special to me in ways that are difficult to express in words. Even though it traditionally marks the high season of synagogue services (and after that first year I never missed one), it was at that very first celebration that I learned the value Judaism places in simple symbols, in home traditions and in passing them on for each generation to add its own touch, in the power of togetherness and in the quiet spirituality it reveals behind everyday actions and objects.

This is something I strive to include in my life and make every day more meaningful, so that, year after year, hopefully, I can see how I've grown.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "a good year," a typical greeting on Rosh Hashanah. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Plural of "kippah," Hebrew for "skullcap," also known in Yiddish as a "yarmulke," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time.
Marina Williams

Marina Williams is a corporate sustainability professional. She has recently moved to Miami, where she lives with her husband, Gabriel and their two daughters.

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