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The liturgy of the New Year is very dark, and for most of the year I hardly remember that. Rosh Hashanah, for me, calls up sweet images. Even as I carry out my usual disorganized self-examination during the month of Elul, traditionally the period of reflection preceding the Jewish New Year, I secretly tend to think of Rosh Hashanah as an easy, "family" holiday.
And then, in the synagogue, as the Unetaneh Tokef, one of the traditional prayers of the Rosh Hashanah service, begins with its solemn, awful litany of death and life, I remember each year what we are really doing here. On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, Unetaneh Tokef declares, how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live, and who shall die...
Last fall, as I heard those words, I was beginning a new part of my life. I was raised in one interfaith family, and I was in the process of forming another. A week after 9/11 I moved in with my non-Jewish boyfriend, nailing a mezuzah (a case containing a written Hebrew prayer, traditionally put on thresholds in Jewish homes) to the door frame of his house and finding shelf space for my Jewish feminist library. The news from Israel was still bad, the news from New York was worse. The whole world seemed to be breaking down into tribal factions and gearing up for war, and here I was in San Francisco, moving the furniture around in an interfaith, decidedly intercultural home.
I hadn't chosen to move in with my boyfriend as a political act, I was just in love. But by the time I had unpacked my toothbrush, conservative pundits were already declaring gleefully that the time of multiculturalism was over; somehow discredited by an act of war committed by fervent monoculturalists. Life, death, and the politics that capitalize on them were all on my mind as my boyfriend and I hauled my boxes of books into the house.
A few days after that, I was standing in Congregation B'nei Emunah in San Francisco, between my Jewish mother and my Catholic father, reciting a liturgy that for the first time in my life seemed comforting, rather than unsettling. In past years, the darkness and dwelling on death that haunts so much of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy had seemed... not inappropriate, but like something I needed to be reminded to think seriously about at the appropriate time. Last year, the whole country was dwelling on death, and the High Holidays were numbing in their intensity.
Gathering as a community is the essence of what we do during the High Holidays. Separate families and individuals join together as a congregation. On Rosh Hashanah we read that all of us stood together at Sinai, even those not yet born. At Yom Kippur we confess in unison to the sins of the whole community. Community, in the end, the larger community of a nation, the smaller community of a congregation or a family, is our only response to the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death.
Interfaith families extend the overlapping rings of community, bringing in new people, extending networks of support and connection, faith and determination. There are still things that make being a Jew particularly frightening in unsettled times, but we have connections and belonging, family and friendships beyond our own smaller community that could not have been imagined when Unetaneh Tokef was composed. These connections too, are what we bring to Rosh Hashanah, and to our knowledge that life is uncertain.
As I begin to prepare for the Days of Awe this year, I carry with me the memory of all the unjust deaths, and the surety of more to come. This is neither resignation nor depression, it's a reminder of what we have to fight for, the stake we have in family and community when we walk together away from our encounter with God.