Saturday, September 27, 2014

Happy Jewish new year!

Or, Shanah Tovah!  Sundown, Friday, 9/26, marked the end of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.  It is now the year 5775, meaning that it's been 5,775 years since God created the universe and us.  Thus Rosh Hashanah is not in doctrinal conflict with the Christian new year, which indicates that 2,015 years have passed since the life of Jesus.

Of course, we don't choose religions based on our own calculations of when things happened.  The typical religious adherent is not an astrophysicist with a personally derived figure for the age of the universe.  We let the idea that the universe is less than six thousand years old slide by; we're interested more in the rest of the message.

The essence of Rosh Hashanah is that the closing of the old year, and the opening of the new, entail an accounting of things, a thinking about loose ends- especially involving people.  To this end, I wrote a college friend I hadn't spoken to in a while, telling him I wanted him to remain in my "book of life" in the new year.  He replied that he would.

Rosh Hashanah is part of an extended period of several weeks called the High Holy Days that culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins at sundown tonight (Friday, 10/3), and concludes at sundown tomorrow, when people fast and visualize themselves standing before God.  The experience is expected to be wrenching, as God sees into your every part, and judges what He sees.

The High Holy Days are a catharsis, a way to deal with questions of self-worth, of human limitation.  It's interesting that synagogue attendance approaches 100% of congregants for the High Holy Days, which is the only time that many Jews attend services.  Attention Madison Avenue: Pain sells.

This year my wife and I will be celebrating the High Holy Days in two different ways.  We celebrated Rosh Hashanah at our Reform temple in L.A., "reform" indicating a loosening of ritual (dress codes, types of music, use of English as well as Hebrew), rather than doctrinal differences, and next week we'll be in St. Paul for Yom Kippur services at the orthodox temple my in-laws attend, where my wife and I were married 43 years ago.

That wedding marked a dramatic turn in my family, which had become entirely secular, on my dad's side, since my paternal great grandfather was killed in a pogrom in his village south of Kiev.  He had refused to interrupt Shabbat prayers and hide in the fields with the rest of the family (including my 10 year old grandfather), and so was cut down. My grandfather, who with his mother and one brother emigrated to America, showed his reaction to his father's sacrifice by saying things like, "When you're dead, you're dead."  My parents, though they taught us that we were definitively Jewish, continued a secular tradition, eschewing all ritual, including observance of Jewish holidays and bar mitzvahs for their three sons.  Only my maternal grandmother was not happy with this (when I was 12 she defiantly took me to Yom Kippur services at her Hollywood temple, while the rest of the family went shopping).

The 1960's excited my inner Ukrainian's need for disorder, but it really was too disorderly.  After all the conventional sacraments- career, marriage, family and middle-class life- had been scornfully discarded, there was nothing left.  The orthodoxy and structure of my wife's family seemed like a balm.  I liked their "Lubavitcher" temple in St. Paul, which was surprising in its freedom of expression.  First of all, women are separated from men, in an ostensibly rather insulting fashion: the men are in the temple proper, where praying and relating to God happen.  Such activities are, apparently, not the domain of women, who are segregated behind a screen and tend to congregate in the kitchen. Why did I like this?  I didn't at first, because it seemed a statement that spirituality is essentially male, that women's place is in earthly pursuits like cooking.  That would be a pretty outrageous idea all right, but it's not the idea of the women of the temple.  Spirits are high behind the screen, as the women share their views about male egotism and self-importance, laughing happily in the knowledge that they are actually running the whole show, including the spiritual part.

Regarding the men on their side of the screen, their form of prayer is considerably freer than in Reform temples, where congregants are restricted to their seats until told to stand, where all recitation is simultaneous and directed from the bema.  In an orthodox service, men stand and read in solitary fashion, engaged in "davening," a form of prayer involving physical expression of ecstatic visions.  Small children also experience quite a bit of freedom, and are allowed to swarm through the congregants and onto the bema.

To give our reform temple its due, its experimentation with music has led to some beautiful sounds which very much enhance the services.

Next week I will file a full report on my Yom Kippur experience at the Lubavitcher temple in St. Paul, as well as my wife's experience from behind the screen.  One thing I will be watching for is expression of political matters.  I was somewhat surprised to find that there was little mention of this summer's Gaza/Israeli war at Rosh Hashanah services. That war is front and center in my mind as I consider the new year, but possibly it's too disturbing and unsettled to emphasize at what has become a family celebration.  We'll see if that's the case at the Lubavitcher temple.

Shanah Tova!