Sundown tonight beckons the Jewish new year, 5776. My brethren and I will don pressed fancy clothes and shuffle quietly into synagogues around the world, to hear the wake-up call of the shofar, or ram’s horn, which signals us to shake off the malaise of the past year and step brightly into a new chance.
There are a lot of heavy words surrounding this time. Talk of being inscribed in the Book of Life. Ominous recitations of who shall live and who shall die. Beseeching God to grant us forgiveness, give us another chance.
And a finger-wagging admonition to make peace with those around us.
It comes every year and it leaves every year, too. We step into the season hoping we are among the living for another year, and not those decreed to die. Most of us truly hope we will be forgiven, liked, accepted by our peers, and most of us feel truly repentant for any wrongdoing, even if we can’t remember it.
We eat the familiar foods – brisket soft enough to cut with a fork, sweet noodle pudding, chicken with fall fruit, matzoh ball soup, chopped liver and gefilte fish. All the Jewish favorites, saved for just a few times a year.
And best of all, we gather with family to toast our silver wine cups and confer a blessing over us all.
These are times of taking stock, looking closely inward, reevaluating our life’s purpose and our favored pursuits. They are times of slowing down, of reflection, of wiping the slate clean.
When I was a kid, our schools didn’t close for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but so many kids were absent that nothing much happened on those days. Two of my children’s schools do close for these holidays, even though there are probably fewer Jewish kids in the district than in the one I grew up in.
I think about that with wonder. We Jews are such a small fragment of the world, and yet we take up a lot of people’s preoccupations. We are an estimated 2.2% of the world population.
The other day, a Facebook friend posted President Obama’s Rosh Hashanah video greeting with satisfaction. As if to say, yes, he is a true friend to the Jews and look at the lengths he’ll go to to demonstrate that.
Except all presidents in modern times issue a statement on virtually every ethnic holiday. Look for the Dewali or Ramadan messages; they’re there.
I never comment on people’s political posts, but I was compelled to do so on this one. I wrote, “Yeah, because he’s such a friend of the Jews…”
A debate ensued, of course, driven by Jews who are so politically correct they can’t even focus on what is right for their own people. We as a people are faulty in that way; we advocate so much for equality, peace and fairness that we don’t realize when we are kicking ourselves into corners.
Our whole history, in the liturgy and in the history books, includes stories of woe where someone wanted to kill us, eradicate us, wipe us off the planet. Somehow, each time, we survived – in smaller numbers, yes, but survived nonetheless.
Still, we keep on. Thankfully, I live in a place where I can not work on the Jewish holidays, cancel my university classes, tell clients I will be out of the office until Wednesday. We have those freedoms.
We haven’t always. And in some ways, we still don’t fully.
Tomorrow, as I step into synagogue with thousands of my compatriots, I hope I’ll focus on what it means to start over, to get another chance, to fully understand this world we live in.
As a minority who appears like the majority, we walk a dangerous line. We look like all the rest of you, but we eat funny foods, speak a funny language, and observe holidays that seem to pop up at inconvenient times on the calendar.
But I can’t turn away from who I am. Integrally, at the soul level.
This is my heritage, my legacy, and my trepidatious walk. We live in a world when people openly want to eliminate us from the population, and not just us. I hope in this new year ahead, we master the art of respect for all living creatures, realizing that the same heart beats in each one of us, whether we bow to a cross, cover our eyes to recite our morning prayer, or kneel on a carpet square in thanks.