Today is 9/26/2012, 5773, two years since I originally wrote this post. I was reminded of it by a fb friend who messaged me, asking for a little clarification as to my belief in the divine. Rather than respond directly and immediately to him, I decided to revisit and share this post. He was confused, because he noticed that I had shared many comments on my facebook page regarding the Jewish High Holy Day Season. I can understand the confusion, which is why I'd written this post in the first place. I think being Jewish is more confusing than being Christian in America. The majority of Americans are Christian and I think, for the most part, they take their religion more or less for granted, perhaps because the American calendar is influenced by the Christian calendar. That is to say, the year is based on the Gregorian calendar, i.e. the "year of our lord" or the time of the birth of Jesus. Also, holidays tend to be the markers by which we define the progression of the year. Interestingly, I assumed that the Christian holidays greatly outnumbered what I call the "All American holidays, but I was mistaken. They are actually equally divided, 6 Christian to 6 All American. I have delineated them by color, All American are red, (white, between the words) and blue and Christian are green: New Years, Martin Luther King Day, Valentine's Day, President's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Easter, Memorial day, Independence Day (July 4th), Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. I love the All American holidays and am grateful for them. I think many other Western nations delineate their calendars solely or mostly by the Christian holidays. The fact that whatever our religion, in the United States, we are all very much American and that is one of the things that makes us great. Having said that, it is still noteworthy that much of the year, we as a nation, are celebrating Christian holidays. Which brings me back to the "Jewish confusion".
Rereading what I wrote two years ago, I realize that I could and would write the same thing today, so I am revisiting it. I will concede one thing. Although I continue to consider myself an agnostic, the presence of a divine spirit or the notion of God is more credible to me in these Jewish High Holy Days than at other times of the year, which should be of some solace to my "believing" friends (and you know who you are...wink wink).
Original Post: 9/10/2010
However, in my case, and I believe, in that of many Jewish Americans, I do see my Judaism as a part of what makes me, Sherril, me. Judaism is a cultural thing, an educational thing, a language thing, an historical thing, a minority thing and on some level, a "national" thing. I believe the last "thing" is a direct result of the one before it, which is to say that Jews, having been historically despised and discriminated against as a minority in most every community in which they lived, have needed a refuge from the bigotry, i.e. a homeland in which they could live with the promise of safety and acceptance. Thus, the state of Israel ant the attachment to it is also a part of being Jewish.
Part of my family's tradition has been observance of what is considered the "High Holy Days" on the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah, rosh=head, hashannah=the year, thus the name means Head of the Year or New Year. The greeting at this time of year is "L'shanah tovah", which means "for a good year", often shortened to simply "Shanah Tovah". This traditional Rosh Hashanah greeting is actually a truncated or shortened version of a longer Rosh Hashanah greeting which is: "L'shanah tovah tikatevu", meaning "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year". Yet another way would be to say
"Shana Tova Umetukah", which means, for "A Good and Sweet Year".
My contribution to the R.H. culinary feast, a "kugel" or sweet noodle pudding.
There was a time that all members of my extended family attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at the synagogue, back when my parents were alive, but alas, only members of my immediate family (me, Haim, Rachel and Jeremy) continue to go today, and I must admit, that our attendance is limited, given the many hours of services at our synagogue (Congregation Ahavas Sholom in Newark, NJ).. Still, we make the effort and I give us credit for this.
The Rosh Hashanah service consists of many prayers that are chanted only on this holiday and a small number of them are what gives the service meaning, for me. Most of the service is chanted by the Cantor or other single congregants, mainly because they are numerous, long and complicated. I would be lying if I didn't say it is, for the most part, boring. I spend much of my time either with my mind wandering to more profane matters and/or reading different parts of the prayer book in English, to find my own meaning, where I can. However, there are a handful of prayers that are representative of the holiday service and many of us learned them as children in Hebrew School, and chanted them year after year, so that they became familiar, enabling us to sing them in unison to this day.
One of these prayers brought me to tears this particular Rosh Hashanah. It begins, in Hebrew (transliteration) with "B'rosh ha-shanah yika-teyvun. U-v-yom tzom kippur yey -ha-teymun".
The English translation is: On Rosh Hashanah it is written. And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
It goes on, and here I will write only the English translation of the prayer....How many shall leave this world, and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die, who in the fullness of years and who before; (At this point, the leader and congregation again chant the first line in Hebrew, B'rosh ha-shanah yika-tey'un...etc.,) after which the leader goes on...Who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by a wild beast; (the refrain is again chanted and again after every semi-colon) Who by by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague; who by strangling and who by stoning, who shall rest and who shall wander; who shall be serene and who disturbed, who shall be at ease and who afflicted; who shall be impoverished and who enriched, who shall be humbled and who exalted.
Then the congregation chant...BUT REPENTANCE, PRAYER, AND DEEDS OF KINDNESS CAN REMOVE THE SEVERITY OF THE DECREE.
It is enough to say that my tears appeared due in large part by a sadness I have been experiencing for the last few months, perhaps making the words, who shall live and who shall die, who in the fullness of years and who before, and who shall be serene and who disturbed, who shall be at ease and who afflicted, felt a little too close for comfort this year. Also, most of the other descriptions like who shall perish by earthquake, plague, fire, water, sword and who shall perish by stoning? Well, if those means of death were not taken out of today's headlines, I don't know what were? Perhaps for the first time, it felt so personal, so present and so powerful.
Another aspect of the R.H. service that maintains significance for me is the blowing of the shofar. The shofar is actually a rams horn. It is difficult to blow in order to make a squeak of a sound and all but impossible to blow in order to make the sounds that respond to the commands given in the Shofar service, which is dispersed many times throughout the RH service" TIKEYAH...SHEH-VARIM...TIKEYAH...TRUE-AH...TIKEYAH GIDOLAH!!! Give heed to the sound of the shofar. It is a moving experience, partially because it is only heard on this holiday (and at the end of Yom Kippur, if you happen to still be around and not already at home "breaking the fast" with yet another feast) and partially because it is considered a mitzvah to hear the shofar blown, a mitzvah, meaning a commandment. I'm not sure why that makes it more significant for me, being an agnostic and all, but it does. Go figure!