OT: Happy 5772! — part one

It’s Shabbat Shuvah — the sabbath of return. It’s sort of hard to write about this at a level that most readers will understand, but below an attempt. Hang in there, readers. Or if Jewish holidays don’t interest you, skip this post. There’ll be more Armitage very soon. It’s just that the synagogue is one place, maybe the only place, that my Armitage fantasies don’t go with me. Not sure why. Probably because I can’t catch even a whiff of Jewishness about the man. Oh, well, no one can be perfect!


The Maccabeats, a popular contemporary group from Yeshiva University (a Modern Orthodox institution) reflect on the meaning of the holiday in their 2011 song, “Book of Good Life.” (In understanding the video it may help to know that the basic idea behind the modern orthodox movement, an heir to the reform streams of Judaism born in Germany in the nineteenth century, is that Jews can be fully traditional in worship, life, and observance AND fully educated in the modern sense.) Cute, but I think the attempt to live a good life has to involve more than helping people on the subway. Then again, I don’t have to commute in Manhattan, so maybe I undestimate the obstacles.

I’ve been told a few times that people like to read posts about how Jewish holidays are actually celebrated (as opposed to abstract descriptions of them) so here’s a post about how I celebrated Rosh Hashanah. I’m not exactly your typical Jew, but I realized about a decade ago that there is no typical Jew. So anyway, this is how I celebrated the holiday — which doesn’t mean it’s how anyone else did it, or should do it, ok?! Jewish customs (minhag) are extremely diverse — based primarily on which large cultural group one belongs to (when I converted, I decided to follow the Ashkenazi minhag because the vast majority of Jews in the U.S. are Ashkenazim), but also on all kinds of other things like what country people’s families came from originally. Minhag is a lot like “Grandma’s cooking secret“; there isn’t always a good reason, and people follow it without knowing exactly why. Also keep in mind that customs vary drastically by the observance level of the congregation. I spent the first evening of the holiday at campus Hillel, and the first day, afternoon, and second day of the holiday at a hotel, at an event sponsored by Chabad. I’ll talk about why I made this choice and what it meant for me a bit more below, but one could hardly pick two more divergent combinations of people to spend the holiday with.


First, some background. If you already know about this basic stuff, skip to the next section, which is about my holiday.

What does G-d command us to do on Rosh Hashanah?

Today, Rosh Hashanah is called the “Jewish New Year,” but the Torah calls it Yom Ha-Zikaron (the day of remembrance) and Yom Teruah (day of sounding the shofar). (There are actually multiple “new years” in Judaism, but I almost never notice the other ones.) It’s mandated in Leviticus 23:24, when G-d tells the Israelites they should celebrate it by refraining from work and bringing a burnt offering. Well, obviously since the destruction of the Second Temple, burnt offerings are not on, but we still refrain from work (which means not only work for pay, but also a whole host of other things that constitute work for observant Jews). We celebrate two days of Rosh Hashanah, owing to the traditional difficulty in determining exactly when the new month had begun and informing everyone. This custom persists although mathematics now allows us to determine the day exactly well ahead of time (see minhag, above).

A demonstration of the kinds of shofar blasts we hear on the holiday.

The main mitzvah associated with the holiday is that one must listen to the blowing of the shofar. You have to hear it for yourself live (not on a radio or a recording), and you have to intend to hear it. That sounds really simple but as with everything in Jewish law the rabbis were very concerned about exact fulfillment of the Torah, so in practice, to fulfill the mitzvah, we listen to a sequence of 100 notes in four different patterns blown on the shofar during the Musaf (an additional service added to the usual morning prayers for holidays), which are then surrounded by additional prayers called zichronot (remembrance), malchuyot (kingship), and shofrot (regarding the shofar). The content of the liturgies most Jews today use was formalized in the sixteenth century or afterwards, but the prayers themselves are much older.

Only one exception occurs to the mitzvah of hearing the shofar: if Rosh Hashanah coincides with Shabbat, the shofar is not sounded on the first day, because Shabbat is considered holier than any holiday. Thus, the rules for Shabbat take precedence over the rules for any other event. Women are exempted from time-bound commandments in Judaism, so technically, according to orthodoxy, we do not have to make time to hear the shofar, but in practice, it’s the one liturgical moment that a woman with a lot of other responsibilities on the holiday will make time to do.

A recording of “Unetane Tokef,” sung in the traditional style. Keep in mind that in shul we don’t have orchestras and choirs in the background; it’s always (except in Reform synagogues, which sometimes have choirs) a cantor or shaliach tzibur chanting the prayer, sometimes with congregation members singing or humming along more or less tunefully.

What does the holiday mean?

A consensus of the rabbis teaches that on Rosh Hashanah the world was created. The Mishnah (a book of legal discussions that comprises the main part of the Talmud, describes customs and decisions made between about 500 BCE and 70 CE, and was redacted around 220 CE) tell us that Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgment, on which G-d does his annual bookkeeping. Those who have lived a righteous life are written in the Book of Life, those who have lived a wicked life are written in the Book of Death, and everyone else goes into a third book. Those of us in the third book, probably most people, have ten days, the period up to Yom Kippur, to put ourselves right with G-d and our neighbors, to have our names transferred into the Book of Life. One of the most impressive prayers for Rosh Hashanah, Unetane Tokef, tells us “on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed … who shall live and who shall die.” The prayer then goes on to describe all the ways that one can die, but reminds us that if we do charity, prayer, and repentance, G-d’s decree can be changed. In practice, we’re supposed to have been listening to the shofar every day of the previous month, which is a month in which we’re already supposed to be cultivating repentance and asking people whom we have wronged for their forgiveness. But these last ten days are a sort of final chance.

Leonard Cohen sings “Who by Fire,” a modern reinterpretation of “Unetane Tokef.”

[At left: A very traditional and tasty-looking tzimmes! This would be served with couscous or potatoes.]

Judaism is a very food-friendly religion, and in fact at one of the holiday tables where I ate I heard the story that one of the rebbes taught that the spiritual benefits of eating kugel were sufficient to replace the sounding of the shofar on holidays when it’s prohibited due to the coincidence with Shabbat (see above). On Rosh Hashanah we also hope for a better year or a sweeter year than the past one. Many of the traditional foods of the holiday, such as apples with honey, honey cake, or round challot with raisins in them, point to the wish for a sweet or a round new year, and common foods on the holiday table, such as tzimmes with carrots and beef, are prepared with sweet sauces or sweet-tasting vegetables. Carrots are cut into the shape of coins to symbolize prosperity, and other round vegetables (such as lentils) or pastas (couscous) are popular. In areas where fresh fish is easy to obtain, fish is popular, especially the head of the fish (to symbolize that in the New Year we want to be the head and not the tail!). Sweet potatoes are also a frequent offering. On the second day it is usual to eat a fruit that has just come into season and which one hasn’t eaten in some time, again to symbolize sweetness. I like figs for this.

OK, if you read all this, you have a basic idea. That’s Rosh Hashanah 101. In my description of my own holiday, below, it’s more like the advanced course. I don’t explain every word I use on the assumption that this is detail at a level that doesn’t interest the average novice, and that Jews don’t need explanations. Jew or Gentile, however: feel free to leave questions in the comments; I will answer.


My Rosh Hashanah:

[At right: honey cake, or lekach, a traditional Rosh Hashanah food]

I was thinking this year that Rosh Hashanah / Yom Kippur are the holidays I’ve celebrated in the most different ways. This happens because they take place at the beginning of the academic year, often after I’ve just moved somewhere new, and the place I end up spending the holidays doesn’t always end up being the place where I join a congregation, so my celebration of Pessach (Passover) has tended to be much more consistent. In the last twenty-three years I have celebrated Rosh Hashanah / Yom Kippur in twelve different cities and with, I think, fourteen or fifteen different congregations. This is both good and bad: bad, because I don’t ever have a feeling of being “home” on the holiday, which is an especial difficulty in Judaism, in which the ritual obligations that take place at home are equal to those that take place in shul, but good in the sense that I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences over the years. I’ll never celebrate Rosh Hashanah with my own parents; on the other hand, precisely because of that, because I’m almost always a guest rather than a host, I’m less set in my ways than many and I’ve seen a lot of things that most Jews don’t get to see. This year was no exception.

It may help some readers, in interpreting my reactions to what’s happening, to know that I spent over two years as a shaliach tzibur (informal prayer leader) when I was living in Germany. Maybe I’ll write about that at some point. The point is that I know a fair amount about prayer.

Erev (“the evening of”) Rosh Hashanah:

I spend the month after arriving querying Jewish colleagues about what they’re doing for the holidays. Most (with one exception, Pesky Colleague, this guy who always pops at Starbucks when I’m writing — he’s actually probably my best friend among my colleagues, now, so this is a loving appellation) are leaving to spend the time with family in other cities. Pesky Colleague is going to the local Chabad, which I have already categorically written off as an option. Basically, after this event, I decide I’m going to spend the whole holiday at Hillel. Mostly because I’m too lazy to start visiting synagogues now in a rush to find one I like, and because even if I did find one I liked, I’d have problems coming up with the money to join it to get tickets to holiday services right now. (Most U.S. synagogues have membership fees, precisely to guarantee that the synagogue runs during the whole year, and not just on high holidays when many people who could care less for the rest of the year suddenly feel the need to have it at their disposal. Hence the practice of issuing tickets [often with designated seating] to members for the holidays. Yes, if you’re Christian, you may find this objectionable or at least odd, but it’s pretty standard among Jews.) I need a free option that I can live with, and it looks like Hillel is going to fit the bill. Then I get an invitation from the Hillel rabbi, which seals it.

Except. It’s like pulling teeth to find out when the services are actually taking place. The rabbi doesn’t respond to my acceptance of his invitation, and times for services are nowhere on the campus Hillel website! I send another email. The morning of Erev Rosh Hashanah, I get a message from him asking if I didn’t get the message he sent to all the faculty — no, of course not, or I wouldn’t have emailed you — but still not sending me any actual times. If I could count on this Hillel to follow orthodox practice, it wouldn’t matter — I could figure out roughly what time services for mincha (the last afternoon prayer service before the holiday starts) would have to start based on the z’manim — but I already know from what I’ve learned at the faculty kickoff that that’s unlikely here.

Debbie Friedman sings her arrangement of “Hashkiveinu,” the prayer asking G-d to let us lie down and rise up again in peace. Her prayer settings were a dominant force in Reform congregational worship in the U.S. through the 1980s and early 1990s. Maybe afterwards, too — I was done with Reform by 1992. At the time, you either loved her or hated her. I was ambivalent because I didn’t like the music but I appreciated that she was a fellow Midwesterner. Now, I get the feeling, her moment has passed and young people don’t know these songs anymore. Or maybe, judging by what happened at Hillel, they don’t know any songs any more?

So, I go to work on Wednesday dressed for shul — nicer than I usually dress for work — because I still don’t know what’s going on. Finally, about 1 p.m., I get an email from a friend of Pesky Colleague telling me when services are at both Hillel and Chabad. Whew. It’s a very busy day, and I just manage to walk in “on time” (actually about 20 minutes late — Jewish events never, ever start at the time announced).

I am the only faculty member there. I am the only person in my 30s-40s who’s not on the staff. Most are undergraduates; there’s one elderly couple, and two or three parents of undergrads who are probably 10-15 years older than me. No one talks to me or even says “hi”! Everyone’s either seated, staring at the floor, or rushing around with stuff to do. I sit down — this is fine, it’s been a long day — and eventually the rabbi comes up to say “hi,” insisting that the weird information politics were purely an accident. (Why wouldn’t they put up the times for services on the campus website? Are they seriously afraid of attacks from antisemites?) I tell him it’s fine. It really is: I just want to pray.

[At right: gefilte fish with carrots, a Jewish holiday favorite.]

Since it’s mostly undergraduates, though, the rabbi does an “icebreaker” before services to make sure everyone knows everyone else. The icebreaker is “why are you here?” He’s put up signs inside the sanctuary offering different reasons and we’re supposed to go stand under the sign that applies to us and talk to the other people who are there about our answer. I choose “this is what Jews do” (where about three-quarters of the people go), but other options include “guilt” (the elderly couple goes there), “hope to be inscribed in the Book of Life” (no one chooses this one), “want to meet hot Jews” (where six geeky boys gather), “free food” (also no one, although we can already smell dinner from the room next door), “want to do better this year” (a large gaggle of very put-together girls), “my mother / father / bubbe told me to” (why is zayde missing from this list? But both families are there, along with a decent handful of undergraduates). Theoretically, I should have expected this, as we know what the main point of Hillel is. In reality, I spent all day talking to undergraduates and conversations about “why are we here?” are a bit daunting for me because they’re fairly personal and my history as a Jew is so atypical. And then, because it’s my job to talk to undergraduates, I always end up wondering what it’s appropriate to say about myself.

Finally, the rabbi tells us that all the answers to the question are right. Whew. This amounts to his entire religious discussion for the evening; no treatment of the Torah portion for tomorrow or any of the biblical themes of the holiday, though strictly speaking that’s more of a Protestant expectation on my part than a Jewish one. Then we start services, and it’s the short service for Erev Rosh Hashanah from the Reform prayer book, Gates of Repentance. I’m not thrilled about the outcomes of the Reform movement, but this is how I entered Judaism, and maybe it’ll be nostalgic. Uch, but it’s the old, pre-1978 version of the machzor, before they added gender-equivalency language. We’re praising only the G-d of our fathers, of course. Sigh. If I’m doing Reform Judaism, I want at least some of the positive effects of the movement, which has, since the 1980s, included the insertion of the mothers into the prayers everywhere that the fathers are mentioned. I expected Reform, but not quite this classical of a Reform service. Even the Conservative movement has improved gendering in the meantime. I try to conform. Then I forget where I am during the loud repetition of the Avot and say “avot v’imahot” (fathers and mothers) and my “v’imahot” sounds loudly through a brief silence in the prayers. Everyone looks startled, including the rabbi, who looks straight at me like I’m a deer in the headlights.

Calm down, Servetus. There’s always the songs to enjoy. I know all the songs! Except: the rabbi and I and one other person are the only ones singing. He’s not bad, but he, too, is mired in the late twentieth century. Or these students are extremely, extremely nervous or unknowledgeable. It’s hard to know what’s up. If this is what this guy, who’s devoted his life to serving the cause of Judaism, has to suffer through every week, he really has my sympathies.

Barbara Streisand sings “Avinu Malkenu,” to the arrangement by Max Janowski that the Hillel rabbi chose as well. Classic Reform liturgy, but Streisand is a perennial favorite of people who are even older then me, and almost no one in the Hillel congregation seemed to recognize the tune.

The key distinguishing prayer of ma’ariv (the evening service) for Erev Rosh Hashanah is a prayer called “Avinu Malkenu.” I love this prayer, which asks G-d to heed our pleas for blessing even though we’re worthless, but it’s weird to be singing it in this echo chamber — me and the rabbi. After services he comes up to me, shakes my hand again, and says, “wow, you really know how to pray!” I smile, uncertain what my response should be. Um, yeah, the prayers were a big part of why I converted? The rule in Judaism says that converts may not be discussed as such, so it’s not in my interest to out myself, though I always think it’s fairly obvious. Doesn’t it bother you that no one here seemed to know them? also seems like an inappropriate answer. I respond with, “well, I really like to sing.” Which is true.

Dinner is awkward: it’s not clear exactly who I should sit with, as I’m not there to “meet hot Jews.” That I’m not hot myself is less of a problem, since the rabbi informed us during the icebreaker that he thinks all Jews are hot. Whew again. Dinner is tasty — honey chicken with potato kugel and carrot tzimmes, yum, and gefilte fish, which I am neutral on but which belongs to the holiday somehow. Excellent meal. I end up talking to the parents, who have lots of questions about the campus which I can’t answer because I’m new, too. The entire event is over at 8:30, probably so the students can still do their homework. The early end gives me time to pursue my “other option,” and I’m amenable, since I’m feeling a bit liturgically unfulfilled, and celebrations of holidays at Chabad can go on till the wee hours. Except it turns out that at the street address that Pesky Colleague has sent to me, there’s no Holiday Inn. Grrr.

I go home happy that I’ve fulfilled the mitzvah of praying and full of yummy chicken. And a bit annoyed about the rest.

Rosh Hashanah I:

I wake up in the morning and wander blindly into the bathroom. Which is under water. My own personal tashlikh! After I dry off my feet, and report this problem to the super, I am awake enough to realize that I’m going to have to turn on my computer to figure out where I went wrong with the address yesterday. This is fatal because I also check my email and see that even though students have been told to consult the TA for help over the holiday, about a dozen emails are waiting. Grrr. My favorite part of Jewish holidays is the feeling that one has of having fallen off the planet. Now I’ve dinged it. There’s no help. I figure out where the Holiday Inn in question must be and drive there. Under ordinary circumstances I would never do this. But I can’t contemplate the thought of a whole morning service that’s just the Hillel rabbi and me singing tunes nobody else will admit to knowing.

This is among the weirdest decision I’ve ever made, because Chabad means Lubavitcher Chasidim and I am so NOT chasidic. First of all, their prayer rite (usually classified as “ultra-orthodox,” although that’s a bit imprecise, and Chasidism started in the eighteenth century as a revolt within traditional Judaism) requires a mechitzah, a physical separation between men and women that signals all kinds of other liturgical disabilities for women. I could potentially live with a Modern Orthodox holiday, which also involves the barrier, but chasidim are even more demanding. Most significantly, their mission does not extend to gerim — it’s doubtful they’d even consider me Jewish for any ritual purpose like marriage. Women are often absent from chasidic shuls because they’re at home, tending to their many children, and they are exempted from time-bound commandments like certain prayers, and because they don’t count for the purposes of a prayer quorum. But women who are in chasidic shuls also don’t really sing out loud, because of the prohibition for men on kol isha (hearing the voice of a woman, which is thought to be sexually arousing) during prayer.

And the singing is my favorite part. Really, I don’t know why I’m doing this. The humidity must finally be getting to me.

[Tune in next time for a new episode of “Servetus prays with Chasidim!” Actually, let me know if you got this far and you’re interested. I’m going to write the rest down but won’t publish it if I’m boring you.]

~ by Servetus on October 2, 2011.

21 Responses to “OT: Happy 5772! — part one”

  1. I find it fascinating. Do tell what happened next!


  2. I’m with judiang! Please keep going! I love the various music vids. Such a wide variety of styles. The Maccabeats have great harmony and the Rock Anthem is incredible!


  3. That was really interesting Servetus. I read all of it, and listened to some of it. And I did laugh at you getting caught out in the prayers – I do similar sometimes at church with the gender thing, and also sing really loudly (so that my kids tell me to shhh) because I was a professional singer originally and love to sing the hymns with gusto. I will eagerly read the next chapter when you post it. I’m not aware of any practising Jews amongst my friends, but if they were they would have a long weekend for it here as Monday is a public holiday.


    • That used to happen to me in church, too — my parents’ church briefly switched hymnals in the 1980s and suddenly there were all kinds of bobbles 🙂


  4. Interesting to contrast your Rosh Hashanah with mine. Mine was nice, spent with family, blah blah blah, but yours sounds much more adventurous. It’s nice to have a synagogue that feels like home, but i can appreciate the value in being nontraditional and stepping outside your comfort zone once in a while. While it may have been frustrating for you it was wonderful reading for us. Looking forward to more!

    And obviously you are a better person than I am, for my RA fantasies absolutely went to shul with me. Do I need to atone for that before Friday night?


    • Probably a happy medium would be best. 🙂

      Fantasizing about Richard Armitage in shul — don’t know. Is that an aveirah? or maybe a mitzvah? Maybe there’s a mitvzvah to fantasize about Armitage on the sabbath just like it’s a mitzvah to do other things that night after the lights are out? (winks)


  5. Please continue, Servetus!!!
    I followed your explanations with great interest and am curious to learn more.
    The B.Streisand song is locked for Germany, but I know her “Yentle” songs and do have the film soundtrack on a LP (You can tell from that alone, that I bought it years back. I heard it so many times, till my sister and parents could not bear it any longer ;o)
    I once saw a report on TV about women converted to Judaism and there one woman complained, that she would never be fully accepted throughout her whole lifetime, though it became better for her after having a son. But even he is treated differently for being from a ‘non-Jewish’ mother.
    I felt sad for her, as she really took it to her heart.


    • I used to feel that way, like I’d never belong, but then I had some experiences that really changed that for me. Now I very rarely worry about it.


  6. Fascinating indeed. I’m always eager to learn more about cultures and religions, so I feel a little more integrated to this little blue planet. I never heard about Jews here in my city, but in bigger ones like São Paulo there are many. I’ve watched about New Year Day in national news too, then I remembered your post.


    • I didn’t realize there were Jews in Brazil but it makes sense that there would be. We learned on Rosh Hashanah eve that Jews live in every time zone of the world except one.


  7. This is absolutely fascinating. I would love to hear the story of how you came to Judaism, and why–unless you’ve already told it and I missed it. We have been at the same Reform synagogue for nine years. There are certainly things about Reform that bother me a lot (such as the lack of interest in most forms of observance) but the rabbi is a serious guy and a mensch, and it’s a real community for us and our children by now. Plus, everyone sings.


    • I haven’t. Maybe I’ll get around to it sometime. It’s a long story and not a very coherent one, and i have the feeling the story I’d tell now is not the one I’d have told when it started.

      Singing is important. I’m really overly focused on the liturgy because I don’t have kids and I’m not looking to meet a guy. So really prayer is most of what there is for me. But liking the community is important, especially if it’s a synagogue that hosts onegs, etc., after services, or if you have kids.


  8. Forgot to say–your Hillel experience sounds dreadful and it does not say much about that Hillel in general.

    Our local Chabad rents rooms in a hotel for the yomim norayim; it’s known during that time at the High Holiday Inn.


    • I have to say for this guy that he’s new this year, and people are constantly saying how much better he is than his predecessor. He has a hard row to hoe here for various reasons, mostly because this is very much a commuter campus.


  9. You have to indulge us with part II. Love the — “you really know how to pray” comment. BTW which sign did you stand under? Not sure I caught it.


  10. I love the way you are talking about religion and culture. I close my eyes and I feel that I am there and I hear these prayers and songs.
    Thank you for a very interesting post.


  11. […] (If you want some information and my take on the more traditional moments of the holiday, I wrote about them last year.) […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: