Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year and this year it starts on September 18 (the date slips and slides since the Jewish calendar is lunar). I’m as ready to turn the page on 5780 as you are on 2020, trust me.
This year feels more than different or new, it feels ridiculous. 2020 being the unstoppable ashtray of doom that it is, we fled our wildfire smoke-choked city to my parents’ house in the SoCal burbs. On the downside, we might all give each other Covid, but at least we’ll get to eat holiday desserts together. My kids are thrilled.
Even here in relative safety though, how can I do teshuva, the deep personal act of accounting for the ways in which I’ve missed the mark this year, and return to who I am… when “who I am,” apparently, is running a substandard homeschool for two elementary school kids while trying to keep my career going and vacuuming wildfire ash off my houseplants?
The kids are excited about the basics of Rosh Hashanah: apples and honey, a day off from school, and very loud shofar practice around the house. Meanwhile, I’m feeling bored by the time-honored brisket recipe and wondering if the last six months of sourdough and homemade soda syrups have primed me for something more ambitious. Maybe a pomegranate pavlova? That new round challah braid I saw on Instagram? My parents are pouring cocktails fast and furious, so maybe we collab on a honey-themed drink.
That’s the honest truth of where I’m at this year with the high holidays: Plotting menus with my mom while looking skeptically at the literally hundreds of truly creative, thoughtful, innovative digital media holiday options coming my way. I’ve been invited to stream my teshuva, tefillah and tzedakah like never before on Youtube, Zoom and Instagram… and I’m finding it hard to get excited.
See, Jewish liturgy works its magic on two tracks, the personal and the communal. This is one of the things that makes Judaism less of a faith and more of a tribe. On the High Holidays, a person examines their soul, through silent and chanted confessions and prayers. What’s profound is that you can’t do the work alone—you’re required to do it in a communal setting and a lot of the words are written in the plural. Forgive us… We have sinned… Inscribe us in the Book of Life…
Probably the best illustration of the communal mindset of Rosh Hashanah is the commandment about the shofar, the ram’s horn. There isn’t a mitzvah to blow the shofar, there’s a mitzvah to hear it. Someone else sounds the horn, while you focus on listening. It is a spiritual high to stand still, eyes closed, and let those blasts shatter your consciousness with cries for change and renewal.
We can’t do that this year. It’s not safe to gather in buildings and pray this year, and even if we stood 6 feet apart, your shofar is a really efficient way to blow COVID-19 into my airspace. Naturally, Jewish communities are working on this problem. I went to a drive-through synagogue event last week where the shofar blower, a pediatrician, had rubber banded a disposable mask onto her shofar.
We’re also trying to figure out how to sing together, even though we all know how awful Zoom singing is by now. Rabbis are pre-recording their sermons and, in a true testament to the power of the human spirit to persevere through trauma, synagogue presidents are pre-recording their Yom Kippur fundraising appeals. (I can’t wait to see the Youtube metrics on those.)
This year, we’ve all experienced the quarantine version of Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, the Fourth of July, the first day of school and, for many of us, birthdays. Each ritual has been a letdown but also, weirdly interesting—a rewriting of what we’ve done before that can feel necessary and new. It was my first birthday road trip to try the best ice cream in another city, and honestly, that was a sweet family celebration I’d do again any year.
Rosh Hashanah is unfolding in surprising ways as well. The holiday won’t be as grandly communal as it’s been in the past, but my inner circle of family and friends is tight. My 10-year-old son is learning to make babka while my 7-year-old daughter practices her shofar skills with classmates online. My mother-in-law is hosting daily “cousins’ club” storytimes for kids spread over the country, and my parents are programming our synagogue-hopping Zoom schedule. A girlfriend and I collaborated on a Rosh Hashanah yoga video and for the first time in years, I managed to send out a holiday card.
Rosh Hashanah is a good teacher, asking us to look over our year and figure out how to return to our true selves. How can I show up (differently) for friends who are suffering losses and hardship? How can I be a better partner, and parent?
This past year has brought new meaning to the word diaspora, and feeling disconnected. I think the antidote to it is small, strong commitments to a smaller circle.
Shana tova u’metukah. May it be a good, sweet new year, starting from within.