30 years ago my father died suddenly, shortly before Rosh Hashanah. He was 54 years old. I remember being unable to sit through services that year, refusing to hear the words of the u’netaneh tokef prayer; the ones proclaiming that who shall live and who shall die is all signed, sealed, and delivered. My father was an exemplar of teshuvah and tsedakah: his life’s work was about reconciling people who were hurt and angry at one another, and he believed, fiercely, in justice. And although as a self-defined agnostic, tefila, prayer, had not been a major part of his life, he went to shul every day to say the mourner’s Kaddish after his parents died. And then, because he saw how vital it was to have a minyan for those saying Kaddish, he continued to attend the morning service as often as possible so that others could recite it in a minyan. That is the kind of person he was, and I was devastated and furious that he died so young.
That year I also stopped sending New Year’s greetings wishing my friends to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life. What did that superstition matter?
The Book of Life had no meaning for me for several years after that. Then I encountered a teaching by the renowned mystic Rabbi Judah Leib Alter of Gur, known as the Sfat Emet (or Sfas Emes, meaning The Language of Truth), after the title of his signature book. This lesson was filtered through the eloquent translation of my teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green:
The human heart is the tablet on which God writes. Each of us has the word life engraved in our hearts by God’s own hand. Over the course of the year that engraving comes to be covered with grit. Our sins, our neglect of prayer and Torah study, the very pace at which we live all conspire to blot out the life that life written deep within our hearts. On Rosh Hashanah we come before God having cleansed ourselves as best we can and ask God to write that word once again and to seal it up on Yom Kippur, so that the sensation of being truly alive may not depart from us through the entire year.
I understand this to mean that, regardless of how we understand God—or whether we believe in such a Being at all—we have the opportunity to cleanse our hearts of the grit that stems from guilt or grief and interferes with us feeling truly alive.
Perhaps the traditional Jewish spiritual practices of teshuvah, tefila, and tsedakah, when translated as “repentance, prayer, and charity”, do not sound life altering. Today, I understand this text to mean that we have the opportunity to return our truest selves; to find a path to prayer, meditation, or reflection that makes us mindful of life’s myriad gifts; and of using our own gifts to make the world a more just place.
This is what allows us to clean our own hearts and stand open and ready to have the word life engraved upon them once again.
In the year to come, may our hearts be open to the “life” that is written deep within our hearts.
I, and I’m sure others here, don’t identify with either the father or the son of this dialogue, but I think these characters are reasonably realistic. However, what really struck me about this piece is what they didn’t talk about. They debate about priorities, politics, and God, but not the institution at the center of the piece. The father is asking his son to visit and feel more welcome in his synagogue. It is the institution of the parent where the ideal is that the son learns to love and connect with his father’s institution. A key paragraph from the father is:
About the time you were born, I realized that I needed wisdom older and deeper than my own. So I returned to the synagogue, and I began to find answers. You’re right — the synagogue does not speak in my voice. That’s what I love about it … the opportunity to listen. There is wisdom here. There are resources for living life. I don’t go to shul to express myself. I go to listen. So don’t build your community entirely of people who look like you, think like you, live like you. Don’t just talk to yourselves. Find the humility to hear wisdom. Open the Torah and listen deeply.
We learn and become a better people by listening, but holy communities grow and build connections with dialogues and mutual respect. The father follows the paragraph above by talking about the ways his generation created and shaped new communities and new communal priorities. This dialogue takes for granted that, if the son is creating something, it’s going to be his own community and not their joint community. Listening is important, but how many people of any age want to devote their time to an organization where they must listen, but are never heard?
When I think about the healthy, long-lived Jewish institutions in my own life, I am struck by how they not only welcome intergenerational dialogue, but also look to multiple generations for real leadership and real influence. The father and son’s dialogue shouldn’t end when they break fast together. Perhaps the father can ask his son how his synagogue could change to make it their synagogue. Perhaps the son could give serious thought to realistic ways to improve their synagogue. Perhaps the synagogue leadership could join this dialogue and also learn to listen and adapt to also be the institution of another generation.
The holiday season is now over. And something about it may have felt a bit out of the ordinary, unusual, abnormal. And based on recent experience, that feeling is accurate. But in the 2010s, abnormal is becoming the new normal.
In the last decade, as often as not, the Jewish calendar has followed the pattern in which all the fall holidays (except Yom Kippur) fall on weekends. This pattern is both loved and hated. People who work for Jewish organizations and observe 2 days of yom tov (so that the holidays are on Saturday and Sunday) dread this pattern because (unlike in other years, when the Jewish holidays are days off) they go from workweek to holiday to workweek to holiday, without a break to do laundry. People who work and go to school outside the Jewish world, whether they do 1 or 2 days, find this pattern easier, since it doesn’t require taking any days off of work/school, except for Yom Kippur (but that’s the one that your boss has heard of, and is much easier to explain than Shemini Atzeret).
Love it or hate it, we won’t see this pattern again until 2020. This Mah Rabu post from a couple of years ago covers all the details.
In its place, we see a new popular pattern emerging. This year, Yom Kippur was on Shabbat, but all the other holidays were on Thursdays (continuing into Friday for the 2-day people). This means that the 2-day people got a string of what are colloquially known as “3-day yom tovs”: when a 2-day yom tov falls immediately before or after Shabbat, resulting in 72 straight hours away from whatever one doesn’t do on Shabbat or yom tov. People working in the Jewish world appreciate all the 4-day weekends. Other people have to miss a lot of work or school: 3 or 4 days for 1-day-yom-tov people (depending on their stance on Rosh Hashanah), and 6 days for 2-day-yom-tov people, and that’s not including travel days.
Love it or hate it, this pattern is here to stay. We’ll do it all over next year, and then again in 2013, 2014, and 2017: half of the years in the 2010s.
The other half of the decade will see a different pattern that we haven’t seen in quite a while: Rosh Hashanah on Monday, with all the fall holidays falling on weekdays. This pattern also includes Shavuot starting on Saturday night, leading to another “3-day yom tov” for the 2-day crowd.
All told, the half-decade from 5771 to 5775 will include a total of 14 “3-day yom tovs”, and the decade from 5771 to 5780 will include 21. (But don’t worry, there’s only 18 more to go!)
This leads to my prediction (awaited since the title of the post): This decade, and especially this half-decade, will see lots of 2-day-yom tov people switching over to 1 day.
In a few years, we can come back and check this prediction and see whether the 1-day majority has gotten any larger. In the meantime, back to work.
My rabbi made a bold move during his d’var Torah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah services this year. After a brief word on Park 51 earlier in the service, in which he condemned the bigoted opposition in the strongest terms I could have imagined, I wasn’t expecting too much more fire and brimstone, especially on Israel-Palestine. And he looked sort of nervous to me – who wouldn’t, facing such a large crowd (this is Rosh Hashanah, mind you, so we’re talking every Jew in town) that was by and large far more conservative than you. Yet he called for an end to the Gaza blockade and asked congregants to write a letter to Netanyahu’s office urging him to fully engage in the peace talks and bring home results. Strong stuff.
Nine years after the attacks of 9/11, I want to stop and think about framing. How we frame conflicts, both in our mind and externally, has a lot to do with more concrete things like foreign policy, or the nature of the domestic discourse on an issue. 9/11 was an attack on the core of Americanism, and not only because of the physical spectacle of the WTC being leveled by a bunch of reclusive angry dudes. It represents the clash of two worldviews – an American constitutionalist perspective in which personal freedom is of the highest importance, and a religious fundamentalist one (which religion it is is completely irrelevant) in which those who think wrong, believe wrong, act wrong, are to be punished by those who know better. It’s disgusting no matter who it comes from.
In that bin Laden most likely knew what the U.S.’ response to 9/11 would be (“We have raced to Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently to Yemen and Somalia; we have created a swollen national security apparatus; and we are so absorbed in our own fury and so oblivious to our enemy’s intentions that we inflate the building of an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan into a national debate and watch, helpless, while a minister in Florida outrages even our friends in the Islamic world by threatening to burn copies of the Koran,” says Ted Koppel), he made a masterful calculation in goading us into it. But I can’t help but think that he also gave us the greatest opportunity ever to definitively rise above the war-on-terror paradigm. It’s not too late to change course and stop trampling on the mangled remains of the constitutional freedoms (see above links, courtesy of Koppel) bin Laden sought to demonstrate the inferiority of, an effort for which we’ve done far more than he ever could have. This would take a reframing at the national level, something Obama did a bit of in his Cairo speech, but, more importantly, it would also take people of conscience standing up to bigotry at every level. Park 51 is the starkest example we’ve seen so far that this society has yet to move past the paralyzing ethos of American vs. un-American. Or, in simpler terms, a lot of people in this country are still racist.
And so, G()d’s children are still drowning. And until we end the war on terror abroad and the war on Islam at home, and until we, as my rabbi urged, truly walk in the other’s shoes and know their pain as we do our own, the water rises higher. May the memories of the 3000 innocents who died on 9/11, and the thousands more who have died since in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, and more, not be forgotten.
Eight more states – DE, HI, MD, MA, NH, NY, RI, WI – have primary elections this week. (Hawaii’s is on Yom Kippur – DOHT!) Have you fallen into the trap of praying for peace and prosperity but haven’t checked your local polling location?
Rock the Mitzvote reminds you to get off your tuchas and get out there. Use their free High Holidays e-card to encourage everyone you know in these 8 states to hit the polls – let’s pray with our feet, people!
Jewish educator and comics critic David Wolkin digressed from his usual lampooning of graphic novel misfires to muse meaningfully on the new year. The post has, decidedly, nothing to do with comics and thus we happily repost it here.
Yesterday was the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. It’s can be a weird thing to have to have two different New Years (yearses?), especially when the second one usually overlaps with the start of the school year. As someone who works in the Jewish community and in a school (this is what I do!), this is undoubtedly a stressful time for me. It can be a challenge to get into the celebration, to not have it feel like work, because for me, it is work.
So that’s one piece of this and I suppose I’ve learned to deal with it in my own way, by viewing it as a second opportunity per year for reflecting on what I’m doing right and what needs work in my life. Ultimately, this is a time of reflection for Jewish people and their loved ones. Rosh Hashanah begins the new year on the Jewish calendar, but it also is the first day of what we refer to as the Ten Days of Repentance, which ends on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is basically a ten day period in which we’re asked to reflect upon our sins of the past year and do whatever we can to repent for them.
This post came our way courtesy of Alan Jay Sufrin, singer/guitarist/bassist/keyboardist for the band Stereo Sinai. He’s also the official shofar blower at Congregation Anshe Shalom in Chicago this year (and is tremendously excited about it). Here he is with his newest instrument in the recording booth.
[T]he tale seems kind of goyish. But hey, Superman was invented by several Jews and much has been written postulating how Jewish legends and archetypes influenced the creation of his character. And we are instructed to sound shofar in times of crisis, just like Mal is.
Which reminds me of a joke that my friend tells way too much — as illustrated by the illimitable comic artist Mat Tonti. What do pirates say to each other on Rosh Hashanah?
This high holiday season was new for me in many ways. It was my first away from my family, it was the first time I fasted without drinking water, and it was also the first time I didn’t go to services during the day on Yom Kippur. This last one, and a related concept I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, are what I want to talk about here.
As anyone who’s done it knows, praying is not a simple concept. It’s a big category within the religion (as in it encompasses a lot of practices and ideas), and there are a myriad of opinions about every single aspect of it. When, how, where, and why you should do it, and so on.
Like many Jews, I’ve always had a complicated relationship to prayer. I was raised religious, but without much connection to a synagogue. Although very nice, the shul in our town never excited us that much (I think I’ve talked about my struggles with this a bit in a previous post), and I’ve looked for other options for a long time. More »
And speaking of said overlap, there’s also In the Beginning, a Hebrew Bible fanworks fest, coming soon to an internet near you. This one challenges fanfic writers to write “fanfic” about the Hebrew Bible… or, what others might call midrash. Pieces will be published beginning October 2nd, but until then the site gives some background to the project.
I meant to post this before Rosh Hashannah, but apparently StorahTelling held services in a winery? Maybe this makes more sense for those of you who live in New York. If this piques your interest, they’ll be back for Yom Kippur – more info here.
My facebook feed before the holidays was abuzz with discussions of this article from The Forward, decrying the lack of family-friendly policies in the Jewish professional world.
I traded in last night’s chazanut for some gospel this morning. I do percussion for a gospel choir here at Drew. Our director, Mark Miller, is pretty well-known as a composer, organist and choir director in his slice of America. A brother-sister rabbinic team, Rabbis Leah Berkowitz and Perry Berkowitz, two of the frumpiest-looking Jews you could ever hope to find, hold a full set of High Holidays services every year in a Unitarian church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, featuring periodic bouts of fantastic gospel music. Joshua Nelson, increasingly well-known proponent of “Kosher gospel music” was also on hand for several songs.
The Rabbis Berkowitz, it seems, are far from frumpy. The folks that turn out for these services, however, need some work. The service operates in a loose and free-form sort of liturgical not-quite-structure. A sort of meditative, stream-of-conscious, never-ending narrative springs forth from the rabbis throughout the whole service in topics of alertness, repentance, joy, music and the liturgy itself. The machzor, if you could call it that, is an 8-page packet of 11×17 paper with bits of a variety of machzors grafted on.
Normally, I’m not one who tolerates highly-abbreviated or flippant liturgy, but with these two rabbis, it works. Maybe it works for me on RH, for reasons I mentioned earlier in this series: I don’t like this holiday and I don’t get it. Maybe their non-stop sermon, dribbled as it was all throughout the service gave me enough to think about that I was able to get something out of this service.
The music, of course, was beyond good. Everyone seemed to know that in the congregation, but many seemed unsure of how proper this was. And if it was proper, they didn’t know quite how to respond. Many clapped hesitantly or awkwardly, while others peered over their reading glasses in disbelief. But no one could deny it was good.
The downside: It was four hours long! When I finally escaped the building at 2 p.m., I was so hungry for lunch, I thought Yom Kipur might already be upon us!
The musical highlights: Hearing Mark, whom I know as a gospel pianist, playing along to Rabbi Perry’s perfectly chazan-y Avinu Malkeinu; and Joshua Nelson and his singers belting out Hinei Mah Tov to the tune of When the Saints Come Marching In.
The rabbinic highlights: Rabbi Leah’s shouted stream of wrongs in the world, punctuated by Rabbi Perry’s spastic shofar blasts. Not to mention watching the two jump all over the bimah ecstatically waving tambourines around with such gusto that, as Four Weddings and a Funeral put it, “I feared lives would be lost.” These are two energetic rabbis. The congregation should take a few pages out of their machzor.
I thought about beginning my adventure somewhere new, but all adventures begin somewhere similar. So I headed down to my usual haunt for davening, Chavurat Lamdeinu.
A note on CL before I get into it: CL is an oddity in the indie minyan world. It’s in suburban New Jersey and its members–who have many of the same complaints about synagogue life that the twenty- and thirty-somethings that are mainstays of the indie minyan world–are all generally at least 25 years older than me. There are a few exceptions to that demographic generalization, but it’s mostly true. The group is what’s left of a library minyan at suburban NJ Refrom synagogue, though it may outwardly appear quite close to Conservative in style. Our Rabbi was ordained at HUC, though her connection to Reform is tenuous these days. Our usual shaliach tzibur is a convert and a current JTS cantorial student. He is freakishly talented and I normally have no complaints about his leadership style on ordinary Shabat mornings. He generally wears a polo shirt and jeans to services, and that’s pretty much the level of dress that everyone in the Chavurah adheres to.
All of the above is why I love CL and why I go there every Shabat. But on Rosh Hashanah, a lot of that flies out the window. Instead of usual 10-20 chaverim, we grow to 30-50 for RH and Yom Kipur. Everyone–except for me, but including the other Shabat regulars–gets dressed up. And the type of accessible, but beautifully led melodies fly out the window, exchanged for all manner of off-the-wall chazanut that no one knows and no one can sing along with.
And this is the problem that always drives me away from my own community–wherever that may currently be–during the High Holidays. People I don’t know come out of the woodwork. In an attempt to impress them, the leaders trot out all manner of stuff that is far beyond the weekly norm. The result is that the non-regulars are uncomfortable because they’re not used to being in shul at all. Meanwhile, the regulars are uncomfortable too because of all the weird different shit going on!
Tomorrow, this series continues with what is sure to be a bizarre day of RH with gospel music in a Unitarian church. We’ll see how that goes.
Though elements of each of these years of RH and YK have been fine, I’ve never been satisfied with the overall experience. Whether it has to do with where I go or with my willingness or unwillingness to repent remains to be seen.
I’ll begin tonight with Erev RH services at Chavurat Lamdeinu, my usual place of davening these days.
Tomorrow morning, I’ll be at a Unitarian Church where a certain gospel music composer I happen to know will be helping to lead a service that will incorporate a number of gospel tunes. As far as I can tell, this service is not listed anywhere online. If you’re interested in going, it’s at All Souls Unitarian Church between on Lexington between 79th and 80th at 10:30 a.m. Let me know if you’re gonna bet there so I can we can say hi.
If the gospel crowd isn’t doing a tashlich thing, I’ll head over to the Brooklyn Bridge or something else equally iconic and do tashlich.
And, finally, for Yom Kipur day, I’ll skew more traditional than my norm for a change. As noted, I’ve skewed to the left before when I tried out the Reconstructionist shul, but I’ve never tried something more traditional than what I’m used to. To that end, I’ll be heading back in to Manhattan for Kehilat Hadar‘s traditional-egal take on YK. As one fellow refugee of the Reform mainstream recently told me, “I like Hadar for YK because that’s the one time in the year when I want to feel as frum as possible.” Yeah. We’ll see how I feel about that when I’m still standing around in services trying not listen to my stomach.
Expect posts throughout this season of renewal and repentance chronicling my High Holidays Sampler Plate Adventure.
The Rabbinical Assembly distributed this letter today to its members, asking its rabbis to read the piece below in lieu of the Shofar service on Rosh Hashanah. (The shofar is traditionally not sounded when RH falls on Shabbat, as it does this year.)
On this Rosh Hashanah our brothers and sisters in Israel face the threat of a nuclear Iran – a threat to Israel’s very existence.
Today, we Jews around the world also confront the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment of the Goldstone report which blames Israel disproportionately for the tragic loss of human life incurred in Operation Cast Lead, which took place last winter in Gaza. This unbalanced United Nations sponsored report portends serious consequences for Israel and the Jewish people.
On this holy day, which is not only Rosh Hashanah, but also Shabbat, the Shofar is silent in the face of this spurious report, the world is far too silent.
Today the state of Israel needs us to be the kol shofar, the voice of the shofar!
We ask you to write to our governmental leaders and call upon them to condemn the Goldstone report and to confront the threat of a nuclear Iran.
While the shofar is silent today, all Conservative rabbis, cantors and congregations have been asked to sing Hatikvah at this moment in the service.
We rise in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Israel.
What troubles me most about this suggestion is how profoundly it flies in the face of the very meaning of the festival itself. On Rosh Hashanah, we affirm Malchuyot – God’s sovereignty over the universe. Rosh Hashanah is the only time of the year that Jews are commanded to bow all the way to the ground and pledge our allegiance to God and God alone. We acknowledge that our ultimate fealty lies with a Power beyond ourselves, beyond any mortal ruler, any government, any earthly power.
Beyond the political arguments over such a statement, it strikes me as something approaching idolatry.
I’m curious to know your reactions, particularly in regard to its religious implications.
I apologize for being such a slacker this past year in posting. (New job and all that- not an excuse, but still).
Still, this morning I find myself with an embarrassment of riches, which I will try to cover over the next few days.
Today’s topic: a terrific post reflecting on tshuvah, and using the teachable moments recently offered us in public by politicians sports figures and musicians for how not to apologize.
I’ve noticed, myself, the spreading plague of people who “apologize” if I have hurt your feelings, implying that it is the victim who is oversensitive to a rather minor slight, or worse yet, implying that they have done nothing wrong at all, and the victim is to blame.
I actually blame the politicians for this one – the non-apology! It all started as a way for them to seem to apologize without actually taking responsibility for what was done wrong.
I would like to note that this is not really an apology. More »
The 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah fell on September 19, 2001, but that was before The Onion gave us permission to laugh again, so talking like a pirate was the last thing on our minds at the time. Other than that, this year is the first combined Rosh Hashanah / TLAPD since TLAPD was founded in 1995. The next time will be in 2020.
So, to help us prepare for this rare conjunction, here are 10 ways to incorporate Talk Like A Pirate Day into the Rosh Hashanah liturgy:
1) (the obvious one) sound the shofARRRRR!
2) …made from rams stolen from another ship
3) (in communities that read Genesis 21) read the story of HagARRRRRR!
4) (in communities that read Genesis 22 on the first or only day) …al echad heHARRRRRim … vaYARRRRRR et hamakom meirachok.
5) Apples and honey can prevent scurvy.
6) …et yom hazikARRRRRRon hazeh…
7) Throw your enemies overboard for tashlich.
8 ) The HadARRRRR CD is sold out, so get a PIRATED copy.
9) Show up without a ticket.
10) Who shall live and who shall die, who by sword and who by walking the plank! ARRRRRR!!!
If you can’t wait until 2020 to do it all over again, Talk Like A Pirate Day 2013 is the first day of Sukkot; start practicing your lulav swordfights! Also it will be none other than Yom Kippur in 2018; I totally want to lein Jonah that year.
This is the first of a series of three Rosh Hashanah video greetings I produced for Taglit-Birthright Israel. The title “High Resolutions” brings to mind technology, and personal resolutions for a new year, during the “high holidays”. So the videos are all about improving interpersonal communication by cutting back on less personal methods of communication through technology, like Facebook, Twitter, and texting.
This one should deepen your spiritual prep for High Holidays: Leonard Cohen performing his “Who By Fire” with able assistance from the great Sonny Rollins on shofar (I mean tenor sax…) I believe it was taped on “Night Music with David Sanborn” back in 1989.
And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?
And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling?
And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling?
Today, New Israel Fund released rabbinical resources for the High Holy Days, from Israeli social justice activists fighting for religious pluralism, protecting Israel’s environment, empowering women, minorities and migrant workers, and safeguarding civil rights. Read it at www.nif.org/YamimNoraim, selected quotes below the fold.