Sweet New Year
Tonight is Erev Rosh Hashanah (aka New Years Eve in the Jewish Calendar).
This one is a happy holiday: we dip apples in honey to signify the start of a sweet year, eat round challah (bread) which apparently signifies the cycle of the year, we use pomegranates as a symbol that we should be fruitful, and we say “Shana Tova” to wish each other a good year ahead. There are other customs that are not quite as food-related, but I decided to prioritize here. This is my blog after all, so I get to tell you what it means to me, not what Rabbis and wise men a thousand years ago decided it should mean.
And that’s what I have decided to write about for this post. While I’m tying this theme to a Jewish Holiday, because that’s what has inspired me to write, it applies to everyone, at all points of the year.
A lot is expected of all of us. That is to say, of course we are all expected by those we love, and by ourselves, to accomplish great things…but we are also expected to do a lot of specific things. Follow rules set out by others and carry on traditions that have been passed down. Do whatever we can to please those who are important to us, and take care of those who need us. Take time off work and go to synagogue. Gather and cook for family. Buy the round challah, the honey, the apples. Cook and clean and host and pray. Be strong. Belong. Carry on.
I love the feeling that I’m carrying on a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. As my grandmother once said, she wants to pass down “observances and side dishes”. And I love a chance to gather and celebrate with the people I love. Especially when it involves delicious food. But I don’t love having rules forced on me. And I don’t like feeling like I don’t have a choice. I don’t like being told how I should live my life.
As soon as I feel like I have to do something because “they said so”, I feel a strong desire to do the opposite. If it means nothing to me, I have a hard time carrying it out. And yet, the guilt that we feel if we don’t do exactly as our mothers or parents or grandparents or community leaders expect can suck all of the joy out of something that could be special.
When I was a little girl and our family was getting ready to go to synagogue for the high holidays, every year there was a big fight as my mother stood there with the pantyhose in her hands and I screamed and cried because I didn’t want to wear them. Pantyhose are the worst. And maybe “little” girl is a generous description because it continued on well into my teenage and maybe even early adult years (okay, maybe without the screaming and crying, but it was always a fight). At some point in the argument each year, my mom would give up (or turn to reverse psychology) and say, “Fine. Do whatever you want.” As I continued to grow older, and become and independent adult, she actually started to mean it. And what do you know, sometimes I even wear pantyhose when I go to shul as an adult. Sometimes.
She’s given that wisdom to me on other occasions too. Within days of my getting engaged, my mother’s advice was to do what’s right for us, and not to listen to the rules of what “they say” needs to be done a certain way. It was great advice (and great ammunition to throw back at her the one or two times she did tell me that things needed to be done a certain way). As a general rule, I have tried to adopt that mentally in my life overall.
I have spent way too much time worrying about what other people thought and about what I was supposed to do. But I needed to figure out what works for me. Everyone should practice and pass on what is meaningful to them. And everyone should stop judging everyone else for not doing things the exact same way that they do. We’re all doing our best, and we all need to do what’s best for ourselves.
Last year, as I think I’ve illustrated in-depth in my past posts, was possibly the most difficult year of my life. During the High Holidays, my husband was out-of-town, my friends weren’t able to make it to shul, and I sat there alone during Yom Kippur service (The Day of Atonement which comes just 10 days after Rosh Hashanah). As you can probably deduce from the word “atonement”, the theme of this holiday is much more somber. We are asking forgiveness for all of our sins in the past year. The congregation repents (in a beautiful, haunting tune) about all of the things they’ve collectively done wrong and asks for a fresh start. But last year, as I sat there alone, reading the English translation of these beautiful songs, I got really upset. As if I didn’t beat myself up enough already, the last thing I needed was a communal guilt trip. I thought to myself, “You know what, Judaism? I’m doing the best that I can! I’m not apologizing for that!”
This experience really woke me up to making sure that I’m doing things for the right reasons. I will carry on the customs and traditions that are meaningful to me, not because I’ve been told to, but because I want to.
This year Rosh Hashanah is the earliest that it’s been in 100 years. And it won’t be this early again for 100 more. All of my Jewish teacher friends are probably so grateful that the High Holidays will never again coincide with the first week of school in our lifetimes. But this year it did. So it’s not just the start of a new year for Jews, but also for all the students and teachers out there beginning a new year of school.
I wish a sweet new year to everyone who is celebrating a new beginning right now. My wish is that you may be sweet and gentle with yourselves and with others in the year to come. Do what’s right for you and be kind to yourself.
שנה טובה ומתוקה. Shana Tova Umetukah. A Good and Sweet Year.