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The High Holidays: New Year, New Traditions

Originally published Sept. 12, 2006.

When we were first married, the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were like an immersion course in Jewish culture and faith for me. Being Protestant, everything was new and strange. However, 15 years later, I am much more comfortable with them. In fact, now that my wife and I have children, we have developed our own traditions that continue to evolve as our daughters get older.

With every New Year, we look for ways to enrich the experience for Gabby and Molly. Having younger children, we usually attend the kid or "folk" service at our synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is shorter and more fun, appealing to both children--and Protestant dads. As an added bonus, Gabby sings in the youth choir. Nothing against the adult service, but I understand this one a bit better. Our rabbi does a wonderful job with the kids. He is very engaging, and our daughters always seem to grasp the concept of his sermon. It gives us a great topic to think about and discuss with our girls throughout the day.

hungry duck

Last year, after a lunch break, we decided to go as a family to a Tashlich service for the first time. Tashlich is where Jews throw breadcrumbs into a body of water to symbolically cast away their sins and resolve to do better in the coming year.

We congregated with other members of our temple at Island Park in Ann Arbor. In the middle of the river, this is beautiful little island is home to many ducks. Casting the crumbs--Honey Nut Cheerios in our case since it was all we had--into the water, we talked about ways that we can be better people in the coming year. While my nine-year-old understood the symbolism, I think that my six-year-old simply enjoyed feeding the ducks waiting downstream. My wife and I talked about how we would try to be better listeners with our daughters; the girls said that they would try to share more with each other. Our kids also promised to try not to tease each other as much. Even though they normally get along, I could see a slight look of guilt passing across their faces. We talked about how even good people make mistakes. The important thing is that we know right from wrong and try to improve ourselves every year.

If it was a difficult concept for them to understand, I found it equally difficult to explain: be good, but it's OK if you are not perfect. Where was my parenting manual when I needed it? But that's what I have come to love about the High Holidays--they give us a specified time as a family to reflect each year. We all stay home from work and school on these days. When we are not at services, we spend time together as a family and think about ways to make the world and ourselves better. Last year, our family decided that we'd like to give more time and money to help the homeless families in Ann Arbor.

After making the ducks fat with our Honey Nut Cheerios, we drove over to the rabbi's home for his annual open house. This was also a first. It was great talking with friends as well as temple board members and staff. Meanwhile, our daughters and their religious school classmates spent the whole time eating brownies and swinging on the rabbi's swing set. The girls were having such a good time, it was hard getting them to leave.

In contrast to Rosh Hashanah, our family has well-established traditions for Yom Kippur. For Kol Nidre (the eve of Yom Kippur), Bonnie and I attend the adult service. The kids usually go to childcare in the temple's basement or stay at home with a sitter. To mark the end of the holiday, we have been breaking the fast at our friends Staci and Bill's house for the past eight years. There, we enjoy a large spread of delicious food with five or six other families. All of the kids spend the whole time eating brownies and swinging. I'm definitely seeing a pattern here. As a long-standing family tradition, we look forward to this break-fast every year. I'm sure that the Tashlich service and rabbi's open house also will become similar traditions for us for many New Years to come.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Aramaic for "all vows," the opening words and name of the first prayer that begins the evening service on Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre has come to refer to the name of the evening service itself. 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." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Jim Keen

Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.

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