Monday, September 29, 2008

Rosh Hashanah (Happy 5769, Everybody!)

It was a beautiful afternoon and evening today here in Wichita. A strong breeze was blowing, but that didn't prevent me from enjoying the late September warmth as I rode my bike home from work, watching the sun turn slightly orange as it approached the horizon. And then, when I got home, the smell of challah bread, fresh from the oven.

Four years and a couple of weeks ago, I wrote my first Rosh Hashanah post. At the time, we were living in northeastern Arkansas. Now we're living in south-central Kansas. Neither, as you might guess, are major centers of America's Jewish population. So while I have Jewish friends, we haven't ever had Jewish neighbors (at least, not so far as we've ever known) during our sojourn through the American South and Midwest. Hence, we've never been able to get caught up in, or even just catch a small glimpse of, this holiday in its full civic aspect. So why write about it, especially seeing as how I'm not Jewish and won't be attending synagogue tomorrow? Well, because it's a new beginning, and I'm nuts for beginnings...especially those that I can tie into the calendar, and to however small a degree, make into something about where we are, and where we're going. To paraphrase some of I wrote back in 2004:

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 German Reunification Day (seeing as how our lifestyle gets in the way of celebrating Oktoberfest to its fullest) and the Korean Thanksgiving, Ch'usok. 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....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....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 its 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, tonight at sundown a New Year began. The mere fact that for many of those millions that history doesn't matter much may be worth pondering...but it isn't, I think, an argument that the holiday can no longer be meaningful, in however small and simple a way, to anyone at all.


Life continues on: it's one damn thing after another, it's daily. More debt. More crises. More charges on the credit card. More bad times--but also, more good ones too. We get all the tomatoes out of garden, and now it's time to transplant the blackberry bushes. I get paid. Melissa gets a book review done. We have some friends over for dinner. The girls are getting older. We carry on. It's nice, in the midst of this, to pause, to mark an ending...and then, after we eat, to know that it's beginning all over again.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Some time ago, while talking about the meaning of the LDS Temple with a Jewish colleague, I made use of a metaphor which is in common use among Mormons to underscore the importance of the Temple.

Its usage offended him, and his only statement on the subject was a rather terse, "You need to realize that what you just said is tremendously offensive... I say this only because I know you will understand."

I didn't understand, but because this particular man has a marvelously imposing personality, and because I was a much younger man in my mid 20's, I decided not to dare trying to discuss it further, for fear of inadvertently giving offense again.

I asked a few Reform Jews about it later on, but their answers didn't really explain the offense. And you'll note I've omitted it here.

I put this to you, Russell, because I've wanted, for years, to do as you've done with various Jewish holidays, for my kids, but I have not wanted to tread upon the feelings of others. Stuff like lighting the Menorah and telling the story of the Miracle of Lights, like fasting at Yom Kippur (and maybe even taking the day off for religious mediation and dedication) for the same reasons and explaining it in our family home evenings, etc, etc.

I want this because I've perceived that Judaism is a beautiful religion and a marvelous expression of a covenant relationship with God. While Mormons have no end of tools to tap into that sort of divine attitude, it's becoming important to me to show my kids, and remind myself, that many millions of peaceful people believe beautifully uplifting things, and honor that difference for what it is.

So my question is this: Has what you do been any kind of a source of offense or friction between you and the Jews you call friends? Could I light the Menorah, or hold a Seder at Passover, or fast at Yom Kippur, without giving offense?