In the Suburbs / 10 days when tradition reigns
Published 5:40 am, Thursday, September 20, 2012
Last Sunday at sundown, Jews worldwide ushered in the High Holy Days, also known as the "10 Days of Awe."
The holidays began with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), continues Tuesday evening with Kol Nidre (all vows) and end Wednesday with Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), when each of us hopes to be inscribed in the Safer Chaim (Book of Life) for another year.
Rosh Hashanah is a celebration. We begin the holiday by cutting a traditional, round loaf of Challah and dipping the bread and apples in delicious, gooey honey that always makes my fingers sticky. This year, as we joined friends in Trumbull for a traditional Erev (the night before) Rosh Hashanah dinner, we dipped our apples and Challah, said the prayers over the bread and wine and raised our glasses to toast the sweet and happy new year to come.
I love these get-togethers because we can share a delicious meal, forget the pain and crises of the past year and look forward to a better one. I am always careful not to make resolutions at this holiday, because one should approach it with a clean slate and a heart open to giving even more in the new year.
With no children at home, we haven't had an Erev Rosh Hashanah meal in a number of years. But when we first moved to Fairfield, we always invited friends for a meal, and our home was filled with laughter as we enjoyed the great food my wife had prepared. These days, we gratefully accept invitations and offer to bring something.
In those earlier years, we always went to services on Erev Rosh Hashanah, mostly with the kids. For the evening service, the synagogue always seemed so warm and bright, and we loved greeting friends and catching up. The cantor's rich voice filled the sanctuary, ringing in the new year with beautiful melodies and the rabbi's sermons were somehow a little more powerful than they were during the year.
I always left much more inspired and much more reflective after those sermons. I was uplifted most of the time, finally able to put so much of what had happened in the year before behind me.
Services for Kol Nidre, one of the most solemn nights of the year, have always made me more introspective. Especially when I hear the melody of the Kol Nidre prayer chanted or played on a cello or violin. The haunting sound reverberates through my body and causes me to think deeply about the sins I may have committed in the last year. Kol Nidre powerfully ushers in Yom Kippur.
When I was much younger, I spent much of the day with my parents at services, feeling more committed to prayer and fasting, which is a tradition of the day. After the upbeat start of these holidays with Rosh Hashanah, I was always ready to face the deeper soul searching of Yom Kippur. The prayers were geared to cleansing ourselves of the sins we had committed the year before and begging forgiveness.
These days, I attend just two services on Yom Kippur -- Yizkor, which is a mass memorial service; and Ni'ilah, the final service of the day, when the symbolic gates of heaven remain open for one last opportunity for us to confess our sins and ask to be inscribed in the book of life. The ark that houses the sacred Torah scrolls remains open throughout the service and many will stand for the entire service.
I have always found these services to be the most moving of the Yom Kippur holiday. Yizkor is usually very crowded. I feel this service is the acknowledgement and celebration of loved ones and friends we have lost. The service also is a gentle reminder of how fleeting life is and how important it is to keep loved ones and friends close. The prayers are solemn and often haunting.
The prayers of Ni'ilah, on the other hand, help us to see that we are, after all, human and we commit sins. I am always touched when the rabbi asks individuals, couples and families to approach the sacred ark during Ni'ilah to pray for loved ones or friends who are ill or offer a prayer for the coming year.
When services end and I walk outside, there is sometimes a light chill in the air, which reminds me that colder fall days and winter are not far off. I have always considered the holidays a bridge between fall and the remainder of the year.
And as I reflect on these 10 Days of Awe, I consider myself blessed to be surrounded by a wonderful family and friends. And to those who celebrate these high holy days, I wish you a healthy, happy and prosperous new year and a peaceful fast.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.