From Days of Awe to Days of Action: How Awareness Changed My Rosh haShanah 

By Phyllis Palm

In previous years, I contented myself with preparing for the Holidays by preparing food, inviting family and friends to share the holiday meal with me and buying myself a new outfit. Last year I really enjoyed baking Challah at the SAJ with 40 other families.

 I figured I lead a good enough life, I volunteer my services to Alzheimer's caregivers, to children of Holocaust survivors and through the JCC Engage program I help out here in the city. I donate money to political causes and to charity; I pay my synagogue dues. I even attend Shabbat services on a regular basis. I am attentive to my family and to my friends, I care about my body by eating well and exercising. I keep my mind active through reading, attending plays, films and lectures. I learn something new each day. I am no longer stressed by caregiving; I am relaxed and able to listen to others, so I’m good.

Right? Not so fast. I listen if a friend or family member asks for my advice or opinion, but do I really pay any attention at all to folks outside of my comfort zone? How often do I catch myself privately scorning folks whose behavior or dress differs from mine? How often do I say to myself “Why doesn’t he pull his pants up?” Or “Why does she have to wear those long sleeves in the summertime?”

On a larger scale, just this week, I found myself wondering “If we are making this effort to have interfaith programming, why are so many of the attendees like me?”

Living in Arizona these past ten years has taught me to be more quiet about my long held beliefs as they differ significantly from those of my neighbors. But since the election last November, I found the courage to speak up and discover those other silent voices who feel as I do. Now there is a group of people from my Arizona voting district who meet once a month. From 25 members, the attendance is now above 125 each month!

So I learned I am capable of reaching out to folks who differ from me in their beliefs and their actions. Now, in preparation for the Days of Awe I am forgiving myself for my former seclusion within my comfort zone.I have begun and will continue to reach out to folks who are different from me, to listen, to befriend, to actively hear what they are saying and feeling. Preparing food  and giving money make me feel good about myself, but what do the others really need and what could they actually accept from me? Awareness is the first step toward change.

Shanah Tovah

Counting Anew

By Liz Emens

What is Rosh Hodesh? 

My efforts to answer this question for my children have led us to a special discovery this past year—a discovery that will assume new meaning this Rosh Hashana.

One day in late June, I found myself at the breakfast table trying to explain the summer solstice.  This launched me on a mini-lesson about the astronomical basis of the solar year.  I was holding up an apple and an orange, the earth and the sun, and twisting up my arms showing how one revolves around the other, all the while spinning on its own axis. 

After repeated attempts, my arms growing tired, I finally saw some glimmers of recognition. 

Just as my kids were catching on to the solar year, I made a classic mistake in teaching—moving on to new information before your students have even had a chance to integrate the first lesson.  But I was suddenly struck by the oddity of explaining only this one calendar.  I found myself pointing out that the Jewish year operates on a whole different calendar.  I tried to explain that this other calendar centers on the moon instead of the sun.  My kids looked at me blankly.

I tried to make it more concrete for them.  That’s what Rosh Hodesh is, I said. 

What’s Rosh Hodesh? 

We have a lot of calendars in our home.  Three have been hanging in our kitchen since January.  A fourth was added in March after my dad donated some money to the National Parks Service.  On that day at the breakfast table in June, I realized that not one of our calendars would help explain this point about the moon.  Our “Jewish Calendar” from the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam would point out the date on which any given Rosh Hodesh occurs, but, since even that calendar follows the Gregorian calendar months, it wouldn’t give my kids a feel for what Rosh Hodesh is.  I decided we needed a new calendar—one actually organized around the Hebrew months.

This seemed simple enough.  I looked online.  My first searches turned up nothing more than Gregorian calendars with Hebrew dates noted on them, like the one we already had.  Emailing a Judaica store and Chabad led to the same place.  Everyone had Gregorian calendars with helpful information about the Jewish calendar.

Fortunately, I thought to email Rabbi Lauren.  She did a little digging and came back to me with four different possibilities—two of them independent projects of graduate students or others working to design new calendars.  One calendar already existed and looked hand-made—with each lunar month a vertical list of days.  I wanted something with more shape, more texture. 

The fourth option was lovely and may be familiar to some of you already.  It’s a Hebrew Circle Calendar, with each month a lunar month, and each week jutting out like a spoke on the wheel.  The Gregorian dates are noted on there, but in tiny faint writing, the way Hebrew calendar dates usually appear on a Gregorian calendar.  Shabbat is in the center of each spoke, and that day doesn’t even note the Gregorian date. 

By now, my family has used only a few months of this past year’s circle calendar, as my daughter pointed out when we sat down today to order next year’s.  She seemed a bit dubious that we needed another one already.  But as soon as she saw the beautiful cover design and the date on next year’s calendar—5778—she was smiling.  Something about the length of years seemed to strike her.  The idea that we were going from 5777 to 5778 felt different to me too this year, when I imagined changing our calendar, to a new one that will have that many thousands of years dated on its cover and pages of lunar months inside.

For me there has been something almost magical about reimagining time in this way.  Twice a month now, we turn over a new page in our calendars.  At the start of August, we turned over the page in our Gregorian calendars.  And on the Rosh Hodesh that began the month of Elul, we turned to the last page in our Hebrew calendar. 

We celebrate Rosh Hodesh with a special breakfast on the Shabbat of the week in which a new month begins.  No foods with particular symbolism (yet).  Following a suggestion from Rabbi Lauren, we just make that particular breakfast extra special.  Her suggestion was to do the special breakfast on Rosh Hodesh itself, but so far I have found it more plausible to do it on Shabbat, when there’s been a bit more time to make pancakes or another favorite. 

Even these small gestures feel in some way profound.  Like time just looks different.  Like I’ve walked through a looking glass. 

Heschel tells us that “time is the heart of existence.”  This resonates.  So far so good.  He also tells us “we cannot conquer time through space.  We can only conquer time in time.”  Now things get a bit dicey for my hunt for the calendar.  Looking for a graphic representation of lunar time might be a way of trying to conquer time in space.  And yet, alternatively, that lunar calendar might be understood as a glimmer of a hope of eclipsing, for even a moment, the ubiquity of the Christian calendar.  In other words, that lunar calendar might be aspiring to conquer time with time.  (Neither of these is, in my view, the best reading of this passage from Heschel, but the fact that his classic text The Sabbath admits of many readings is part of its beauty.) 

On a less lofty note, the comedian Louis C.K. has recently critiqued the way time is organized in modern life.  (Warning: This passage comes from a stand-up routine so rude that I do not recommend watching it with your kids, if you have them, unless they are grown, and perhaps not even then.)

“I’m not raising my kids religiously [but] there’s a lot of religion in the world.  So you do have to teach your kids [about religion].  I always tell my kids the same thing.  I tell them that there are many religions in the world, and they’re all equal.  But the Christians are the main one.  That’s what I tell them….The Christians won everything.  A long time ago.  If you don’t believe me, let me ask you a question.  What year is it?  I mean, come on!  What year is it according to the entire human race?  And why? …  That’s right.  It’s 2017….  What is this number?  We’re counting the days since what?  Since there was ever people?  Or since the sun did something?  Not at all.  It’s been 2017 years since what? ... Yes!  CHRIST!  CHRIST!  That’s right.  It’s been 2017 years since CHRIST!  Jesus!  We are counting the days since Jesus.  Together.  Which makes sense if you’re Christian.  But what the **** are the rest of us doing?”

He continues on this theme for a while.  He is not seriously advocating a competitive view of time—this is highly irreverent stand-up comedy after all.  But his routine makes the audience laugh by pointing out something everyone knows but most people rarely talk or think about: the ubiquity of one way of counting time and its organization around a particular religion.

Eventually, Louis C.K. acknowledges something I’d begun to wonder if he knew: “The Jews are quietly keeping track.  It’s really 5,766 [sic].”  He says this in a conspiratorial tone, demonstrating the quiet, “But that’s for us.”

I didn’t realize just how quietly we were counting until two months ago.  What a surprise it was to see the difficulty of tracking down a calendar actually organized around the lunar months.  And what a revelation it has been to discover that beautiful circle calendar through Rabbi Lauren, to put it on the wall, to turn its pages each month, and now to prepare to change it on the next Rosh Hodesh, at the end of the month of Elul, Erev Rosh Hashana.

As we approach the High Holidays, my family will do a number of things we have done before.  Some of the ones we are especially looking forward to include trying a new fruit (we’re hoping to eat cactus fruit this year, since the kids haven’t had it before); eating raisin challah (which my son in particular loves and misses throughout the rest of the year); replacing our toothbrushes (following a suggestion made by Athena at last year’s parenting in the High Holidays conversation led by Rabbi Lauren); looking into each other’s eyes and neshama at the family service led by Tehilah (a moment which brought tears to my eyes last year); and throwing breadcrumbs in the Hudson River for Tashlich (after writing down some things we want to let go of from the previous year and ways we hope to grow in the coming year).  The last two of these rituals were the most meaningful for me last year.  The new toothbrushes are, I’m guessing, my kids’ perpetual favorite.  (This year, we’ll be acquiring Snappy the Croc and Buddy the Bear electric versions, complete with stand, cup, and timer.)

But our newest ritual may well be the most special for me this year.  Changing the calendar to mark the new year.  And seeing the months and Roshei Hodashim and special breakfasts spill out ahead of us in a circle of time.  Shana Tovah.

Three ideas for Reconstructing the Days of Awe from Dan Woods

In what I consider the equivalent of my “bar mitzvah speech” delivered at SAJ during Rosh haShanah in 2012, I asserted that the Days of Awe, actually were based on an acronym: Awareness, Willingness, and Energy.

At the time, I felt that my journey as a convert to Judaism was about using the texts and practices to increase my awareness of what it means to be alive, to have the willingness to change and make progress, and to find and maintain the energy to move forward.

But, I didn’t grow up going to Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur. I needed to find a way to make the rituals meaningful and relevant to my life. It wasn’t about reconstructing, but rather constructing in the first place. I read Rabbi Strassfeld’s book on the Jewish Holidays and this provided a needed context, but I quickly realized that I did not really know at the time how to make the Hebrew prayers, songs, and rituals something that were real to me. (I’ve made progress on this front, but that’s another story.)

What I needed were ways to achieve the intensity I was seeking using methods that were meaningful for me. Here are three ideas, one that I have done, two that I’m going to try this year.

The AWEsome Master Cleanse: I have always tended toward extremes, and when my brother introduced me to the master cleanse, a fast in which you only drink lemonade made with maple syrup for a number of days, I was all in. I found that after the initial transition from eating, a feeling of calm overcomes me as my body goes into a restful state. So for the past 6 years, after the evening meal on the first full day of Rosh haShanah, I go on a master cleanse until break fast on Yom Kippur. At first, I did this with medical supervision, taking vitamins, especially calcium, getting blood tests before and after, and making sure that my physician was on board and ready to answer questions. (If you want to try this I recommend working with your physician.) I have found that this state of calm leads me toward gratitude and introspection that have become an essential part of my experience of the days of awe. I have also been assured by Shel Schiffman and others that this ascetic practice is counter to what has become the mainstream of Jewish tradition. It is also not endorsed by other members of the Woods/Gerard household.  (A topic for another day will be where we can find evidence of Jewish ascetic practices.) But it really makes a difference to me, as well as making break fast something very special.

Tashlich for Two: This year during Elul I’m planning ahead for Tashlich. Instead of thinking at the last minute what aspects of my life I want to discard as I throw the bread into the water, I am going to have a much better curated list. My idea is to find five aspects (habits, character traits, pet peeves, biases, etc.) I would like to discard and five things I would like to hold on to. I will create this list in collaboration with an important person in my life, who will help pare it down and bring focus. I will do the same for them. I want to make it clear that this important person could be anyone you want to work with who is up for such a project, including a spouse, child, parent, sibling, friend, rabbi. It is important to me to balance the idea of shedding the bad with preserving the good, hence the companion list of aspects to hold on to. I am hoping that this process will bring to life the process of t’shuvah and help me explore and deepen my relationship with the important person.

Shofar during Elul: I only hear the Shofar during the days of awe. In an attempt to encourage awareness at as many levels as possible during Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, I’m going to blow the Shofar every day during the last half of Elul. I hope this practice will allow me to be ready to join all the Shofar blowers at the bima. But I suspect that doing it over and over, and studying the meaning of the Shofar in the tradition, will lead me someplace interesting. I will be especially focusing on how Maimonides considered the Shofar as a way to encourage awareness.

I hope these ideas lead you someplace interesting. And if you think of a tish topic you might want to do, all the better.

-Dan Woods

Diane Cole, a frequent leader of Tishes, writes widely about Judaism, literature, history, psychology, and other topics.

Over the decades, Diane has examined Reconstructionism in several of her articles. They provide perspectives we can reflect on and make use of during Elul to consider why we are Jews, what it means to reconstruct, and how we can make this cycle of the days of awe as rewarding as possible.

In "Choice for a Lifetime" [Please link this to the attached image], published in The Jewish Week in September 2003, Diane recalls the evolution of her own beliefs and presents ideas such as:

  • Kaplan's rejection of divine revelation in favor of the idea that revelation comes from within.
  • The reintepretation of chosenness: God did not do the choosing; rather, we choose to be Jews and members of a community.
  • How to find personal meaning in the rituals of the holiday. Diane found it in the sounding of the shofar.

In "Invented the Bat Mitzvah, Rejected a Supernatural God" published in the Wall Street Journal in 2010 Diane reviews Kaplan's career and explains:

  • Many of the innovations of Reconstructionism
  • How some practices, most notably the bat mitzvah, have been widely accepted, while others remain controversial. These include Kaplan's conception of God as "the force that makes for salvation," as opposed to a personal God; and his rejection of the idea of chosen-ness
  • Kaplans's rejection of the notion of historical accuracy of the Torah.
  • Kaplan's Reconstructionist edits to the siddur,
  • The reason Kaplan preferred to view Judaism as as civilization, not just a religion.
  • Why Reconstructionism values belonging as equally important, if not more so, than believing.

The month of Elul and the High Holidays reminds us of our choices and why we continue to make them.

Reviewing these articles reminds us that reconstructionism was and remains innovative, radical, and deeply American.

Elul provides us the time and the opportunity to ask: In our own way, how can we be all these things as well?

Are You Ready for the Days of Awe?

Elul can Help.

 
 
 
 
In order to raise awareness of the role that the month of Elul can play in enriching our experience of the high holidays, Rabbi Lauren suggested that SAJ members share thoughts about how we prepare for the days of awe: Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur.
 
Beginning August 24, we will print a few short articles from SAJ members about how to understand these special days and make them meaningful. Our goal is to show how reconstruction never stops and provide specific practices that can be put to use.
 
The first article in this series will revisit, through several articles Diane Cole has written, what it means to reconstruct and to be a reconstructionist Jew.
 
From this foundation, we will then move on to descriptions of individual practices about how SAJ members make the high holidays their own.
 
If you have thoughts to share and would like to write an article, please contact Dan Woods (dan@danwoods.nyc). 
 
This reflection and introspection during Elul and the days of awe are meant to lead to repentance (teshuva), and ultimately to change. As Rabbi Emeritus Michael Strassfeld writes in the Rosh ha-Shanah chapter in his book on the Jewish Holidays: “This period is devoted to a careful examination of who we are in an attempt to become cognizant of the ways we have failed - failed others, failed our own selves, and failed God. This introspection is meant to lead to regret and remorse for the harm done, to attempts at restitution when possible, and to turning away from our past selves to better selves who will act differently in the coming new year. We are each meant to be a new and improved version, not just the same old self another year older and deeper in debt."
 
Shanah Tovah,
 
-Dan Woods 

 

Tue, November 21 2017 3 Kislev 5778