Thursday, September 16, 2004

Rosh Hashanah

Today was one of those mornings where Alison was up early (around 5:00am) and wouldn’t go back to sleep, and so after feeding her Melissa went back to bed, and I put Alison in a stroller and went for a walk around the Arkansas State campus. It was dark out still, but warm: a pleasant early, late-summer morning. I could see the start pretty well for this part of Arkansas. Some whippoorwills were calling from the trees, but mostly it was just crickets and other ambient insect noise; other than that, silence. I was alone on the roads and walkways around campus, save for the delivery trunks arriving and the occasional night shift janitorial crew returning to their cars. As much as I'd like to have had a half-hour more sleep, it was a nice walk.

One of my oldest and strangest habits is my tendency to attempt to control and apportion my life and duties in a calendrical way: that is, I'm always searching for significant dates or events that I can use as an excuse to declare (to myself) a "fresh start" in whatever is occupying me at the time, or conversely declare something I've been struggling with "over," thus allowing myself to more easily rationalize and accept whatever incomplete, half-assed status things currently stand at, and forget about it. I've been doing this for years, and sometimes it’s bordered on an obsession--I've ripped pages out of my journal ("I'm starting over!"); deleted and set up again all my computer settings, just so traces of the "old arrangement" could be hidden away or self-consciously denied; rushed through assignments and responsibilities so they wouldn’t "cross over" into the "new deal" which I've convinced myself was going to begin the very next day; and so forth. Of course, I've also been bothered and embarrassed by this compulsive rebooting the whole time, and have engaged in all sorts of internal tricks to help me get over it (which has included both fretting about it on my old blog, and--in part--setting up this new one). In any case, knowing this about myself makes me, on some level or another, suspicious of the way in which I tend to turn holidays into dates of personal importance. But at the same time, I'm crazy about holidays, and don’t want my own hang-ups to get in the way of recognizing their essential importance.

Melissa and I incorporate just about any holiday we can plausibly conceive of a connection to into our family life. Traditional Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas, of course, but also various religious festivals connected to cultures and places with which we have some affinity: St. Andrew’s Day and St. Lucia's Day during the holiday season, for example. Then there are outright national, civic holidays: Independence Day, of course, but also Reunification Day (seeing as how our lifestyle gets in the way of celebrating Oktoberfest to its fullest) and Ch'usok, given our connection to both Germany and Korea. And we celebrate Rosh Hashanah. We don’t doing anything special--talk to the kids a little bit about the history and experience of the Jews, and eat some of Melissa's excellent challah bread for an evening meal after sundown--and I won’t pretend that we’re somehow plugging into something deeply authentic by putting it on our own personal (Mormon, American) calendars. Indeed, the closest personal connection I can claim to that tribe is my brother-in-law's wife, who was raised in a part-Jewish home. (They celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, for whatever that’s worth.) But I'm glad we do it anyway, and not just because it gives me the ability to take a nice early morning walk and, justifiably or not, lend the beginning of the day a certain (admittedly somewhat arbitrary, but nonetheless meaningful) significance.

Holidays are a way of putting ourselves in time, marking ourselves in relation to things that came before and things yet to come, people long dead and people yet to be born. Much communitarian thinking may, perhaps, be rightfully derided for being more a matter of philosophical anthropology than political theory, for failing to give any concreteness to the socially and morally necessary imperative to belong, but reflecting on holidays is one such area of inquiry where that accusation is, I think, clearly unwarranted. The calendric sense of recognition and orientation (not to mention the opportunity for association and celebration) afforded by holidays represents an affective binding at least as important, if not more so, than that associated with more explicitly shared beliefs, boundaries, or civic habits. (Charles Taylor has very thoughtfully focused on the role of holidays and rituals in the evolution our modern religious sensibility and "social imaginary"; Amitai Etzioni has led the way in more straightforwardly examining the sociological importance of the "ways we celebrate".) True, few Americans today live a sufficiently pious or agricultural life for liturgical or seasonal holidays to much normative force; believe me, we’ve packed up the kids and gone to see a movie on Christmas, just like the rest of you. But the eclipse of a holiday’s traditional restrictive authority doesn’t mean it's ability to help us "authorize" a particular moment, or turn, or feeling, or resolution in our lives has been lost. On the contrary, it's still there. All we need to do is invest the effort to get into its rhythm, rather than letting the commodification and banalization which so many holidays have fallen victim to (President's Day, anyone?) excuse us from examining their significance.

I'm not Jewish. But I know that for millions of people, carrying with them a history of thousands of years, last night at sundown a New Year began. The fact that for many of those millions that history doesn't matter much isn’t an argument that it can no longer be meaningful, in however small and simple a way, to anyone. As I walked around campus this morning, pushing a smiling, quiet baby (why is she always so much better behaved outside the house?!?), I breathed in some of the humid air (Ivan-influenced rain is no doubt on the way), and felt it was a good start to a brand new day. My old habit of calendrical self-arrangement manifesting itself again? Yes, probably, partly. But also something else: it was a feeling I knew that right at that moment was being shared by others, perhaps many others, wherever they may be. And if feeling something in common with others, whether near or far, isn't meaningful, then I don’t know what is.


Hugo said...

You and I share the same way of approaching time -- always searching for those "watershed" moments.

Terrific post, Russell, thanks

Anonymous said...

I plant my Tomatoes on Easter Sunday (for added support), and eat the first one on July 4th! -Bob

Anonymous said...

I once asked my dad why we celebrated christmas if we didn't believe in christ (we're atheists), and, without missing a beat, he said, "We celebrate Halloween and we don't believe in ghosts; why give up a perfectly good holiday?" I think he was on to something.

Anonymous said...

Just getting caught up with my reading and I loved this post. One of the great things about being Jewish is that the New Year's festivities last all the way to Simcah Torah when we end/start the Torah portions. And surprisingly, unlike just about every other LDS, I know, you actually seem to get Judaism. Rosh Hashanah is not about going to temple, it is about the meals with the family before and after, just as Yom Kippur isn't about temple but about repenting (not quite the right word, but I'm still on my first cup of coffee) for ones sins and vowing to do bettter next year.  

Posted by David Salmanson