Happy New Year!
Let your hair down and crack open that bottle of… Moet and Manischewitz???
Rosh Hashanah starts this evening at sundown. Jewish holidays for the most part always begin at sundown, which when I was a kid made me think of gun duels in cowboy movies. I mentioned that to my mother once but received a stern rebuke in response:
“This is why we spend good money sending you to Hebrew school? So you can spout off nonsense about cowboys on the high holy days?”
I got a tiny bit of delayed gratification a few years later when I watched her bust a gut laughing at Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. But I held my tongue.
Rosh Hashanah celebrates the Jewish new year. It arrives just before Yom Kippur, which follows several days later, and together they are called the “High Holy Days.” The two holidays couldn’t be more different from one another, however.
While Rosh Hashanah is celebratory, Yom Kippur is somber and cerebral. Growing up in a family that for the most part phoned-in these annual religious observances, the symbolism of the high holidays for me primarily meant not having to go to school, eating chicken soup and brisket, and once again hearing the story of how Sandy Koufax refused to pitch in the world series on Yom Kippur.
As celebrating important holidays go, it was generally a laid back affair with my family; I regularly thanked God that I hadn’t been brought up in an orthodox home. Alone with just a book, magazine, and the stereo in my bedroom, I always made it a point to toss in a few Simon and Garfunkel songs in between my regular rotation of Led Zeppelin, Elton John, and Bachman-Turner-Overdrive. Just in case a higher power was watching over me, I felt I was making a meaningful offering.
Jews are supposed to fast on Yom Kippur, and I remember well the handful of times my parents attempted to set an example for us to do that. Well, my mom anyway. Dad’s effort didn’t quite pass muster. I can still vividly picture him sneaking into the kitchen around 8:30pm and walking back into the living room with an elongated, closed mouth. He looked guilty as, well, sin. My younger sister and I immediately exchanged glances and knew that he was hiding an Ann Page cookie in his mouth. All he had to do was get back to the couch and raise the newspaper to hide his face and he’d be golden. My mother always baked honey and sponge cakes for the holidays, but the portable A&P cookie was ostensibly a wise and safer choice.
By the time I reached my late teens and was the last of my siblings still left at home, my parents pretty much gave up on even the pretense of serious religious observance. We continued the tradition of dipping apples in honey (to symbolically represent a wish for a sweet new year), and there was also at least lip service made during dinner to the “Scale of Judgment” that is mentioned on Yom Kippur to weigh a person’s good and bad deeds.
But my mother had been diagnosed as a diabetic in her late fifties, and so for her sake we all thought it very important to stick to meals at pre-established times. Like the lone student having to leave a classroom during a group prayer, it just seemed cruel to make Mom eat first and be alone. So out with the fasting, and onto the holiday brisket!
Sure we were rationalizing, but take your complaints to the prophets. Never get in the way of a Jew and a dinner table.
As I became an adult and formed my own habits and customs, my religious practices and philosophies have ebbed and flowed depending on proximity to others. If I was around any extended family, I celebrated the high holidays and occasionally even attended services at a temple if offered. If I was alone or with my wife, I tended to stay close to home.
During my first years in Washington, DC, I went to high holiday services offered by the Hillel (student Jewish association) at Georgetown University. As unconventional as it was to chant prayers within a Catholic institution, surrounded by religious murals and depictions of the Savior, it also made for a great story later to relay to horrified (and more religious) siblings. For 90 minutes or so, I would pretend I was Mickey, Woody Allen’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters, who briefly considered the possibility of converting to Catholicism. It’s still without question my absolute favorite moment in any Woody Allen film.
I always took time off from work during my career for the high holidays. Jews are not supposed to work on those days, and I had to use my own accrued vacation time because federal government agencies and courts are still open for business.
Now that I’m again gainfully employed, the library where I work is actually closed for the high holidays (in addition to the major Christian and U.S. federal holidays). I had to retire, move clear across the country, and find a job that allows me to work only ten hours a week, but I now officially get those days off. Yet another reward of retirement!
Earlier today Gorgeous baked a beautiful holiday honey cake in celebration of the New Year; I made a beef brisket simmered with Manischewitz concord wine (an old family recipe).
Having Manischewitz around the house during the high holidays is like a fruitcake sitting under the tree at Christmas. No one really likes it, but just as with hard Easter peeps and stale Passover matzoh, it’s a required offering. I’ll make sure to have a small shot glass of it for old times sake before switching over to a nice Bordeaux to have with the meal. I’m pretty sure Moses would approve.
But before all of that happens, we’ll dip some apples in honey and wish for a sweet new year. After all these years, it may still be all about the food but I do love these traditions. Just no Ann Page cookies, please.
Regardless of your faith, l’Shana Tova and a wish for a good and sweet year to all of you.
Until next time…