high holidays – high and low

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As many of you know, the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, begins on Friday night, September 18th and ends on Sunday night, the 20th. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement begins the following Sunday evening, the 27th. For these coming two weeks, my usual Monday postings will appear at odd times as I prepare for and participate in the observance of these important landmarks on our Jewish calendar.

The pandemic has distorted our sense of time in odd ways, so it seems simultaneously like just yesterday and years ago that I was writing about having to accommodate our celebration of the Passover holiday to the new reality of online living. And here we are again, mourning the loss of communal traditions that have marked this season for us. For many years we are joined at Rosh Hashana dinner by a dozen or so friends with whom we share the personal high and low points of the year. As we dip apple slices in honey, we wish for sweetness in the year ahead. Instead, this year the same crowd will click on Zoom to raise a glass, each in his or her home, to a better year. There will be no smells of brisket or chicken soup wafting in from the kitchen, just friendly faces framed in those Zoom boxes that have become fixtures in our visual lives. It will be a holiday devoid of the sensory experiences that are the building blocks of memory.

The rest of the holiday would usually be spent in the company of the small Jewish community called Lomdim (Learners) about which I’ve written in earlier postings. Unlike traditional synagogues we have no building, so we have been meeting in the home of one of our members whose living room is large enough to accommodate the forty or so members who usually join us. For someone of dwindling and doubt-riddled faith, it’s the sense of community that carries me through these occasions. Now all those same faces will appear on my Zoom screen, only 16 visible at a time. I’m glad to see them, but the way in which we’re set apart, isolated in our own homes, leaves me unfulfilled and more than a bit sad. Sitting shoulder to shoulder, watching in amusement as the family dog ranges around among us, I feel a connection to the group that is harder to replicate in the electronic gathering that will replace the real thing. Earnest members have spent hours and days designing something that will infuse meaning into our time together, but it’s a heavy stone to push uphill. We will be staring at our screens for longer than our eyes and brains are intended to tolerate. We will be in solidarity with the millions of kids around the country for whom this is their new school reality. One of the enduring images of this time for me is the picture a parent posted on Facebook of their kindergartener dozing in front of his open computer. I am sure to join him on occasion during our community holiday services.

Our planners have chosen as the theme for these High Holidays the following: “May the year and its curses come to an end! May the New Year and its blessings begin.” It’s a line from a medieval piyyut, a form of religious poetry written by a Sephardic rabbi, and it couldn’t be more appropriate for the current situation. Even for those of us who are surviving the broken realities of this moment in relative comfort and safety, there are losses – missed family celebrations, the need to mourn the loss of a friend or relative in isolation. Richard Nelson has produced a powerful set of three Zoom plays about the Apples, a family of adult siblings, weathering the Covid storm in small town north of New York City. One of the siblings, a high school teacher, is silent through most of one of the hour-long Zoom plays, but when she speaks, what she has to say comes as a gut punch. “I haven’t touched anyone in the last four months.” Those of us who are lucky enough to be isolated with a partner we love, need to contemplate the extent of the losses suffered by people living alone.

It’s been such a cursed year, full of losses – lives above all – that it’s almost a blessing to follow the Jewish calendar and declare it over in September and allow a new year of hope to begin right now. A few days ago, Rosellen and I walked a trail in a county nature preserve which local artists have decorated in an unusual way. Every 20 yards or so a small box  mounted on a tree contains a collage, usually with a message the artist wants to convey to the walkers who pass that way. I photographed one that seemed meant for this moment. If I were more tech savvy, I would insert it here, but you’ll have to make do with my verbal description. Two birds with yellow bodies and black wings appear to be building a nest. They are surrounded by strips of paper attached to every edge and corner of the box inscribed with the word HOPE. Even though we are facing an election that could create a year even more cursed than the one we’ve just lived through, Hope is an imperative, even for people like me who have to fight off a tendency to pessimism. In a few minutes, when I leave this machine, I will head to the kitchen to bake the challah special to this holiday. Its round shape, a departure from its usual elongated cousin, connotes to me a sense of wholeness, a feeling that everything has come together in harmony. Against all odds, this is my hope for a blessed year to wipe away the curses that preceded it.

When I begin our dinner on Friday evening with just the two of us at table, I will dip the apple slice in honey and recite the blessing for a good and sweet year, a wish that extends to all of you reading this.

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Marv Hoffman

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