In the Suburbs: Discovering the true soul of holy day observances
For so many years, we faithfully attended services for the High Holy Days, we always had family and company on the evening Rosh Hashanah began and we dipped our traditional round, raisin challah in sweet honey along with apples to celebrate the holiday. But in recent years, we haven’t attended all the services and ushered in the holidays (the 10 Days of Awe) with a big dinner.
Today, with my wife’s back problems, she just isn’t up to large groups. But we’ve wanted to carry on the tradition of the holiday, so for the past two years, we’ve invited our close friend Judy, who lost her husband nearly two years ago. And Judy is so grateful to just be with good friends and enjoy a home-cooked meal.
The nice part is that Judy comes right from services to our house and my wife really outdoes herself on the meal, because it’s just for the three of us. We buy a round challah, break out the honey and the wine and cut up apples. We say the traditional blessings over the wine and break and add the “She-hechianu” prayer to truly celebrate. Once we’ve dipped the challah and apples a few times, we bring out the main course.
This year my wife chose salmon and she added just a few simple, heart and cholesterol appropriate seasonings. It was a superb meal and Judy kvelled about being able to celebrate the holiday with good friends and about the exquisite meal. That meant a lot to both of us and my wife was very animated about being able to relax and visit. And her back felt much better.
I think as we get older, we find more to value in these holidays by sharing them with close friends and giving of ourselves. I never needed to feel more religious by sitting in services for hours and while I enjoyed the services and the sermon, I felt no less complete by not attending.
This simple meal we shared with our close friend was really enough to convince me that I might just be forgiven for all my sins and actually make it into the Safer Chaim (Book of Life) at Yom Kippur, 10 days from now. Her smile and the knowledge that she was not alone, made all the difference to us. Couple that with the salmon and fixings care package we gave Judy and we had performed a real mitzvah (good deed).
For me, this holiday is all about reflection and confession of sins we’ve committed during the year. But it is also about sharing and being with the loved ones and friends we care so deeply about. The sad part is that once the 10 Days of Awe have passed, we don’t always continue that sharing. It is so easy to revert to old habits — forgetting to call, being too busy to just break bread informally, stopping by to chat and catch up, making too many excuses for why we don’t share more.
I am definitely as guilty as others when it comes to sharing and being with loved ones, but with each Rosh Hashanah I renew my resolve to reach out to as many loved ones as I can. I hope to succeed more this year and carrying my actions through the year.
On the sins front, I have probably committed more than my share this year and definitely look forward to the Neilah (closing service on Yom Kippur) where I can ask forgiveness during the mass confessional. It is one of my favorite services of these High Holy Days.
The other service where I can reflect during these High Holy Days is the Yizkor (memorial) service on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement and a day-long fast). It is a truly beautiful service and the hymns enable me to drift into remembering my mother and grandmothers and grandfathers, as well as my dear friend Susan, who was taken so early a few years ago. I usually sit with Susan’s mom and brother so we can reflect together.
That service segues into the Neilah service and a beautiful Havdalah candlelighting service at sundown to bring the 10 Days of Awe to a close.
And then we share the breaking of the fast with our other dear friends, Howard and Eden. That is always a beautiful and special evening.
Despite not being in a synagogue to worship for the entire holiday, I feel no less religious or spiritual. As long as I have family and good friends, my holiday can be anywhere.
Steven Gaynes’ "In the Suburbs" column appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.