When I was first married, we spent Rosh Hashanah in Indianapolis, where my husband performed as the cantor during services. I was at my most pious then, covering my curly locks with hats and wearing sleeves below my elbows.
We stayed in the apartment of an ultra-religious couple who did not own a television nor any secular magazines or books. In our haste to hit the road, I had forgotten to pack reading material for the heavy two-day holiday, and so I scoured their bookshelves for something familiar.
Most of their books were Hebrew, so I pulled a thick English tome from a shelf in the hope that I would find inspiration. It was a big book about the Jewish views on modesty, and after reading about how Jewish women should not wear makeup because they might be tempted to apply it on Shabbat and that they should avoid patent leather shoes because the shine might reflect up their skirt, I closed the cover.
It took me years to decide that a strict Orthodox life was not for me – but that doesn’t mean I am not innately Jewish, passionate about the heritage I’ve been handed through the centuries.
Rather, I hear it as a call to make sure I am alive and noticing. Its long, aching blasts and short staccato ones remind me not to take anything for granted.
Last night, I sat at the long table in my parents’ dining room, my sister smiling at the end of the table. One of her twins wore a blue plastic police jacket and serious face; “I’m Spiderman,” he said, then tore out of the room to save the day.
Shaya sang “Dip the apple in the honey” to a round of applause and patted his pudgy hands on my shoulders. “I love you Mommy,” he whispered in my ear.
Eliana wore her black dress shoes with their little heels and hung on my cousin Amanda like a monkey. As the cousins fought over who sat next to whom, Asher said serenely, “I’m ok with anyone sitting next to me.”
We ate brisket and apricot chicken, sweet noodle kugel and a heaping salad. We had a round challah dotted with raisins and roasted root vegetables that I chopped and glazed while sipping a glass of Spanish wine.
It was a good night.
In Judaism, our days begin at sundown, a metaphor of embracing the darkness with flickering candlelight, spirits and song and venturing slowly forth into actual light. Isn’t that what this journey of life is all about?
Jews wish each other a happy, healthy new year. It is a phrase we say without thinking, a notion that the words just go together – happy and healthy as we start anew.
This year, those words are especially poignant for me. And so when I say, a happy healthy new year to you all, I mean it with my heart and soul. For we cannot take for granted even a single day or a single smile. Everything is sacred. There is no turning away from that.