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Originally published Sept. 6, 2008.
When I was a child, I "stole" candy from my grandparents. They always had a dish of hard candies sitting on a table by their front door, and every time I visited, I'd sneak one or two into my pocket. I always took one of the strawberry candies, and sometimes, if I were brave, I'd take a lemon one, too. Who could blame me, really? Every Rosh Hashanah, my grandmother would host dinner for our family, and every year, the glass dish would overflow with candy. I had inherited my grandfather's sweet tooth, and there, sitting just at my eye level, was an array of caramel, strawberry and lemon candies in bright wrappers. What kid wouldn't do the same?
It took years for me to admit to my grandmother that I stole candy from her as a little girl. I didn't actually "steal" the candy, because if I had asked, I'm sure she would have given me anything I wanted. The issue was more that I was eating sweets when my mother would have said I couldn't. When I finally told my grandmother the story, she laughed and said, "Oh, Sam, don't you know? I purposely put that candy there so you would eat it. Grandmothers are supposed to spoil their grandchildren!"
Strategically placing the candy dish within her grandchildren's reach was just one of the ways in which my grandmother made High Holiday meals special. She was a caterer by profession, so her dinners were always delicious and her table immaculate. My father and younger brother were Catholic, but she always managed to make them feel welcome at Rosh Hashanah too. She taught my brother the blessing over the candles and kept my dad's plate full. In a quiet way, she made sure I understood that holidays were celebrations of family and tradition, not just of good food.
My grandparents moved to Florida when I was 13, a few months after I became a bat mitzvah. Since then, the High Holidays have been quite different. Each year, my family eats with a neighbor and her family. This "aunt" has welcomed us into her home, sharing with us not only her baked goods--she was a professional baker before retiring--but also her siblings, children and nieces. The High Holidays have become regular updates on the business of this adopted family: who has graduated, who has had a baby, who is still working for the same company. We have grown up together, through high school and college and into the working world, and we're comfortable with our lives crossing over bagels and briskets twice each year.
When I moved away to college, my mom and I wondered what would happen to our High Holiday observance. Without me by her side, she didn't want to go to synagogue services alone, and without a family to share them with, the holidays didn't feel quite the same to me. In the end, I arranged to come home for at least Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur three out of my four college years. This past year, while working in Washington, I managed to do the same.
What will this year bring? In all likelihood, I'll return home once more to celebrate the holidays. My mom has started cooking Rosh Hashanah dinner for my neighbor-aunt and her family, and in turn, we're still invited to break the fast for Yom Kippur. It will be a familiar scene, our families going to different synagogues and then sharing our lives over dinner. My brother will come home from college, bringing whatever Jewish, "family-less" friends he can find for a home-cooked meal.
Lately, though, I've been thinking more and more about the High Holiday meals of my childhood. I recently went to visit my grandparents, and they were, as always, thrilled to see me. Standing in the airport's drop-off lane before catching my flight, I hugged my grandmother and thanked her for letting me stay. "You know you're welcome any time," she said.
Maybe it's time to start observing the High Holidays with my grandparents again. My mom and I could fly down to Florida and spend Rosh Hashanah there. We could gather around my grandmother's table as we used to and go to synagogue as a family. After a year of family illnesses and personal transitions, it would certainly be a welcome way to celebrate. And I'm sure my grandmother would have a full candy dish waiting on the table for my arrival.