Yesterday, I walked by a Breslover Hasid on the street doing his typical goofy (and cute) stuff to make people smile. After I bought a sticker, he wished me “shanah tovah” – a happy new year. I had to pause for a second. Is it really that soon? Is Rosh Hashanah only a week away?
And then I had another thought- other than a Jewish person I already knew, nobody in my life has wished me “shanah tovah” on the street. If you want to understand in one interaction why I’m here, it’s that. Something most Israelis don’t even notice because they’ve lived in a Jewish-majority society their whole lives is something very unique and special for me. I’m validated on every street corner.
Then I got to thinking- what does Rosh Hashanah mean to me as a new Israeli? I’ve never been here during holidays- only during summer trips. What is it like? I found out my synagogue doesn’t have first day Rosh Hashanah services- something unimaginable for an American synagogue. For American Jews, the High Holidays (yamim noraim) are THE event of the year. Millions of people who don’t regularly participate in any other aspect of Jewish life will still go to shul. More secular Israelis may simply do a holiday meal. But American Jews en masse go to synagogue- for hours and hours. And they pay a lot of money for it. It’s a very interesting difference.
In America, Ashkenazi Jews have our special foods. For Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur break-fast, I remember eating sweet dairy kugel, amazing bagels, lox, whitefish salad, 5 varieties of cream cheese (including lox spread!), black and white cookies, dense American rugelach, matzah ball soup, chopped liver, egg salad, herring, you name it. Israeli salads and Sephardi foods are delicious, they are just not what I grew up with as Jewish food because I’m Ashkenazi like 90% of American Jews.
Before the holiday, everyone runs around to get the food ready and pick up their spreads, greeting each other in our Jewish English sprinkled with Yiddish. At my synagogue, you had to pick up your tickets in advance- because we don’t have a government that pays for our synagogues, we have to pay ourselves. You get to synagogue and you’re dressed to the nines- suits, ties, high heels. Here in Israel, the only time I’ve seen a suit is on a Haredi person! There are people here who have “wedding jeans”. We’d all eat together before going to synagogue. The way I grew up I’d go to Erev Rosh Hashanah services followed by a 3 hour morning services. Most Reform Jews don’t observe the second day.
I was lucky enough to grow up in an area with a large Jewish community, so public schools were closed. But in the vast, vast majority of the U.S., schools and offices and transportation are open- and you need to request time off to observe it, which is not always as simple as it sounds. In the U.S., Rosh Hashanah is special because of what you do at synagogue with your community and at home. And it can be very special- very intimate. Like you’re part of this cool 4,000 year old club. Because outside your home, it is invisible. When Israelis wonder why Americans go to synagogue, this is one of the reasons- to have a space to be Jewish. At 2% of the population, there are no TV ads that wish you “shanah tovah”. If you don’t make the space, there is no Jewish community.
Here, it is everywhere. I was at a bakery last night and I noticed an ad for five different types of honey cakes (oh yeah, we eat those too in America). These are cakes you eat specially for Rosh Hashanah. I was in shock. In America you have to know where to go to find these. The local Au Bon Pain won’t be selling them.
I don’t really know what Rosh Hashanah will be like here. I’m a bit anxious. I’m a religious Reform Jew and it matters to me. And yet on some level I feel less a need to go to all the services and more of a need to build community, especially in light of the fact that I’m here alone. I also feel that if all I do is have holiday meals, that won’t be enough. I believe in God and I want to pray for a good year and renewal.
My Judaism here is evolving, in ways I didn’t even expect. This year was a hard one and one of immense personal growth and fortitude. I sometimes miss being a Jew in America- the foods I know that are almost invisible here. The heimish religious communities where if you are participating, it’s because you really care about your Judaism. Because you don’t have to. Here, you’re Jewish by default. There’s something beautiful in how “normal” Judaism is here. And I also feel like in some ways for that reason it can be easy for Jews here to lose sight of how special our tradition is.
My hope for this year is that I can embrace the beauty of a country where I can walk down the street and see myself in every street sign, every ad, in a Hasid with a clown nose wishing me a shanah tovah. And where I can share some of my special American Jewish spirit so people here remember just how rich our tradition and spirituality is- and that it will only continue if we cherish it.
Wishing you all a Shanah Tovah- a good new year. May it be filled with happiness, hope, community, and freedom. A zisn yor – a sweet new year. May it be as sweet as the dairy kugel I’m going to bake 😉