In the Suburbs: The High Holy Days are a time for reflection despite pandemic

Despite a world still in turmoil over COVID-19 and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, racism more rampant than ever in our country, fires across the West looking like Dante’s Inferno and our American democracy showing signs of unraveling — we Jews will still stop to reflect and repent as the High Holy Days begin Sept. 18

For 10 Days of Awe (repentance), we will look deep inside ourselves, celebrate a sweet new year (Rosh Hashana) with apples, honey and wine and look toward Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement to see who will be inscribed for another year in the Safer Chaim (Book of Life).

Tomorrow is Rosh Hashanah — 5780 in the Jewish calendar. The holiday literally means “head (of) the year” and is the Jewish New Year. The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah, which is defined as “day of shouting or blasting.” The blasting refers to the blowing of the ram’s horn, Shofar, which is one of my favorite parts of the service. But sadly, I won’t be there to hear the Shofar.

This year, unlike any High Holy Days I’ve ever known, I won’t be sitting in a crowded congregation and greeting loved ones and close friends. Instead, there will probably be services with small percentages of congregants in masks, worshipping in person, while others attend virtually. My sense is that if the weather cooperates, many services may be held outdoors in a more natural environment, which I think will be even more spiritual than packed sanctuaries.

Dinners on Erev — the night before Rosh Hashana — will likely be quiet, more intimate gatherings, perhaps on a patio or deck with the sun setting and the need for a warm shawl or jacket. Those meals will help reflect on the beauty of just being with families or a few close friends to share wine, apples and honey along with a specially prepared meal.

The pandemic has taught us that these get togethers can be much more memorable than larger, traditional gatherings. Our dinner on the day of Rosh Hashana will be just family — our daughter and our two grandsons. Of course, I didn’t want to forget the delicious round Challahs, one plain and one raisin, that are so much a tradition for our holiday. We have decided to chance only hugs, no kisses, because we just want to hold everyone that much closer.

This Rosh Hashana, we are particularly grateful that our close friend Bob came through his open heart surgery so well and should be coming home very soon to celebrate his and Roberta’s 54th wedding anniversary.

Pandemics aside, I am always grateful to just be alive and reasonably healthy. And as we reflect on all that has happened during the past year — the miracle birth of our newest grandson, Caleb; my aunt’s 90th birthday and other good things, despite the loss of two cousins and one of their wives in Chicago and the death of my late father’s sister at 94 — my heart remains full.

Have I committed sins this past year? I’m sure I’ve committed enough to pound my chest as I say prayers virtually and ask forgiveness on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Even if I can’t be standing in a sanctuary, hoping to get my confessions out before the gates of Heaven close for another year, I can still pray for forgiveness and a clean slate before committing new sins in the new year.

The other Yom Kippur ritual — fasting — is a little less appealing, hygienically, to me this year because of masks. If I decide to fast, I’ll be sneaking lots of pieces of gum to chew discreetly just to feel fresh during the whole day.

More than anything this year, we will miss breaking the fast on Yom Kippur with our close friends Eden and Howard. Our get togethers have always been warm and wonderful, filled with touching and funny family stories, lively conversation and, of course, catching up.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Eden has always outdone herself with quiches and desserts that there are simply no words to describe. Feast would be an understatement for her splendid and colorful holiday table.

Sadly this year, given the circumstances of the pandemic, we will have to miss seeing our friends and savoring Eden’s breaking-the-fast delicacies. But we’ll certainly think about that special meal. We’ll hope to enjoy everything next year when we can break the fast together again in person.

Despite the restrictions around this year’s High Holy Days, we are determined to make this a beautiful and sweet new year of warm reflections, enjoying our traditional apples, honey and wine along with round Challah breads. While we still have warm memories of our many years at congregation B’nai Israel, we’ll be enjoying virtual services from a new favorite congregation, Central Synagogue in New York. We love the musical prayers and warmth that the joint rabbis and cantor offer and enjoy sharing their lively Hamish services.

And as always, we’ll try to make the High Holy Days a special time for reflection and family.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at