Yesterday, I called a friend in Houston to wish her well and to commiserate about the death of Jewish Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — who had died the day before, when it was already Rosh Hashanah in Australia, making her, by Jewish belief, a Tzaddick, a person of great righteousness.
Which we already knew, but it made us feel better about this new great loss in a year of great turmoil, conflagration, loss, and grief. Plague-level virus, firestorms, floods, hurricanes, the murder of black people on the streets, in their own homes.
My friend has been mostly locked in, staying within the assisted living complex she moved to from Georgia a year or so ago to be closer to her daughter and her family, including three small grandchildren. She had only seen them through the patio window of their small apartment for months on end. Since COVID-19 ravaged Texas.
Until the beginning of the Days of Awe, when she finally ventured out, not just to senior hours at the grocery store, but bravely to a Jewish bakery where she was able to buy a single special round loaf of Challah bread eaten only during these high holy days.
This is all that will be of Rosh Hashanah she told me. I will hug and kiss my family and bless and break the bread.
I knew something of what she felt — the imperative of still lovingly preparing and celebrating the new year through ritual foods — no matter how jarringly different the holidays are in this time of pandemic.
After all, Rosh Hashanah began as a Middle Eastern fall harvest festival — blessing the billowing grains and dedicating the first fruits, praying for enough rain and good soil for the next year’s crops, drumming and other music making, young girls dancing in orchards and vineyards before winter and a time of literal and spiritual indwelling.
Food was central.
As Rabbi Arthur Waskow tells us, since at least as long ago as the Jewish people ate matzoh in their headlong exodus from Egypt — which even predated Kosher food — they believed that how we eat has much to do with what we become. Food is religious/religion for us, and we’re not just talking about lox schmear and kreplach. We’re not just talking about the familiar parsley and horseradish and hard-boiled eggs on the Seder plate.
Not only at Passover but at every festival, Jews have assigned special foods as a customary part of the celebration. We bless and we eat, with great intention. We carry these traditions around food with us throughout the seasons of our joy that fit together in a coherent whole, year in and year out.
On Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi points out, the main qualities of the special foods are sweetness (for a sweet year), roundness (for the cycle of the year), and abundance (for fruitfulness and prosperity).
For me, the search involved a challenging quest for a crisp, sweet apple. Just one. For the traditional apple and honey, we slice, dip, and eat for a fertile and sweet New Year. Even in this time when wishes for sweet things seem incredulous, out of sync with what is happening all around me every day.
My husband and I have also been housebound, by governor’s executive order, and for two months even more so because he fell running, tore a tendon, and was unable to bear weight.
This past week I so wanted to take a drive, go apple-picking or at least apple buying, but it did not seem safe or healthy. Instead, we donned our masks and sanitized our hands and kept our social distance at a nearby Saturday farmer’s market and went in search of what turned out to be that unattainable, mythically perfect apple, the first fruit that would make the holiday right.
A lethargic assortment of West Georgia varieties.
A brown spotted bland one had to do.
Much of the media run-up to Rosh Hashanah this year was about concrete ways to still have those elaborate dinners, which are so central to many of our notions of what the holiday is all about — the ones with all the relatives my husband recalls happening after the long services in the synagogue — that only his most observant Uncle Morrie actually made it through: going the first night, then again first thing in the morning, nearly until sundown. And again, a second day. And ten days later on Yom Kippur.
The centrality, the memories of gathered meals, of matzo ball soup, beef brisket, potato kugel, and honey cakes.
This year perhaps held more safely outdoors in small pod groups with cool foods and handheld sandwiches — or divided into small containers, shared and enjoyed separately on Zoom. Traditional breads baked together online. Or mail ordered if getting out to buy the ingredients was too challenging. If yeast, for instance, was too hard to find.
Yet still, it is not the same — as one Jewish caterer observed: “We can get along with not seeing our friends for a while, but when the generations cannot get together and pass something down or a word of wisdom, that’s really where the sadness comes from, for me.”
Besides the holiday food accommodations have come other necessary strategies for safer observances: prerecorded, online Shofar blasts awakening the world and blessing the New Year, downloadable prayers and guided meditations, personal altars, dozens of digital services.
Practical and flexible solutions to religious disorder.
Despite the special round Challah bread that symbolizes the dynamic cycle of annual life, for many of us, this year has been open-ended, flat, days identical — without markers or movement. Those group rituals — the festivals and life celebrations: weddings, graduations, even funerals that provide the commas and semi-colons, have been cancelled or at least postponed. In my own family, a joyful engagement was announced but with no conceivable wedding date.
As one person observed — we are endlessly waiting to go back to our regularly scheduled lives. How can we theologically enter a vital and vigorous time of repentant introspection, getting right with ourselves and others — and renewal — which is central to these Jewish High Holy Days — to our lives as humans, no matter our faith tradition — when we are in such suspension?
How do we find the grounding and the momentum to move forward in a spirit of regeneration when, as writer Ruth Graham tells us, “this year, renewal is not exactly the national mood”?
When uncertainty and paralysis are more apt adjectives.
Ironically perhaps, it is this disruption of our ordinary lives that just might provide the conditions for what we are told is filling our spiritual reservoirs, which prepares us for the starting over, the rebooting we seek. For personal transformation and for repairing the world.
For me, this altered intentionality, a sense that time is after all passing, life changing, all began with a red porch. And the pandemic.
And the internet and Zoom.
Right before the COVID-19 threat became real, we decided to begin the periodic project of having our little Sears and Roebuck bungalow repainted — a couple of rooms at a time, to keep the cost modest and the inconvenience as well. Starting with the drabbing kitchen walls and a hallway. I looked forward to the boost it would give our aesthetics and me personally — as I was tired of looking at the stains and smelling the oil from years of cooking. I was hoping it would lift my spirits as I went through the motions each morning of dog feeding, pill and vitamin taking, dishwasher unloading, coffee making. That never changed and seemingly led nowhere.
We cancelled the arrangements for the painters to come in when it was advised that we shelter in place and stay in our household units for the time being. Told them we would get back to them when it was safe.
That was March.
So I stayed stuck inside those walls, stuck with an aging kitchen and aging routine that was what it was, preparing for nothing, or so I believed.
Like many of us I think, as weeks and months stretched on, we began to do some fixing of things, some small garden clean up tasks. Nothing as elaborate as those pandemic victory gardens sprouting in other front yards: the impressively optimistic beginnings of summer squash, the staked tomatoes that survived neighborhood critters.
One Sunday afternoon, or what might have felt like a Sunday afternoon, I decided to prune the unruly, overgrown, oversized camellia bushes that had most likely been planted when the house was built — always dripping browned blossoms, blocking the front window. The more we hacked and whacked, the more I wanted to just take them down. And by the end of an hour or so, we had — down to the stubborn roots, at least.
Leaving a huge bare patch of dark brown soil — sun speckled where darkness had ruled. And the stained concrete slab that we never considered a porch was there, waiting to be claimed. Spray-cleaned and painted red by the same painters we could not hire for an inside revamp.
With cheap red plastic chairs, we suddenly had a place from which we could see that we were part of a larger environment, starting with a yard filled with old moss and maybe weeds, and unexpected wildflowers. With trees we had planted more than 20 years ago with no real plan now turned into a canopy — nesting squirrels and cardinals. With a lacy view of the sky.
Always an early riser, I almost immediately began to be drawn outdoors as soon as those morning tasks were done — which now provided a sense of necessary preparation.
I found myself doing deep breathing, chair yoga, stretches, and a primitive kind of mantra chanting as I looked at the changing sky, the trees, the swaying branches. Noticed and noted the sounds, human and animal: the repetition, the small changes.
I found myself bringing a journal out to record my impressions — exterior and interior.
And in the cool of the first light, the shy pink dawns, I stayed out longer and longer.
By the time I was ready to go inside, I felt that I was prepared for whatever the day would bring, whatever I would bring to the day. No matter how captive I actually was, I felt amazed. Which rabbis tell us is what it means to be spiritual.
I had gotten to this place — at least most of the time — through everyday actions which become sacred acts, seemingly mundane behaviors done with intention, attention, and repetition.
What I have come to learn is called stacking habits, in this case in the service of spiritual, emotional, and mental well-being.
August came, and with it a longing for more community and invitations for the first time this year to Jewish events around the month of Elul — the month before the high holy days. For those of you from the Christian tradition, it reminds me of Advent — the time of preparation for the birth of Jesus.
While synagogues and other physical gathering places for religion are shut down, many of these programs have popped up, in traditional Jewish communities as well as the growing number of spiritually progressive, totally digital ones — with names like Judaism Unbound and Reboot.
I signed up eagerly, attending an all-day women’s Elul retreat on Zoom created by a Jewish Reconstructionist congregation — propped up on my bed pillows — watching drumming and chanting, being urged to consider in what ways I prepare myself and for what, writing my own Shema, the holiest prayer praising God or giving thanks for a new day. I was invited to take my own nature walk. To sit in a group meditation. All of it intended to help me create my own season of holiness, that sense of awe or awesomeness and wonder — to prepare myself for the Days of Awe ahead. Working to develop or strengthen what is called Kavannah: focused, passionate intentionality.
Starting with the smallest tasks.
I have been a part this past month of the Secular Synagogue Elul group, an online community of nontraditional Jews — secular, atheist, agnostic, spiritual but not religious — from all over the world, most of them younger than your average UU. Rabbi Denise Handlarski has worked with us to take stock, to do good, to start the work of Teshuva, turning ourselves around, having those scary and awkward brave conversations. To engage in Cheshbon Hanefesh, which literally means an accounting of the soul, asking ourselves probing questions, setting goals for starting over. And Tzedekah, which means charity and it does, but also seeking justice through our deeds.
All month long we were urged to stack spiritual habits like crazy — listening to the Shofar every day, saying a blessing, doing morning pages or other journaling, some form of mindful movement, making a gratitude list.
Reading psalms of the season and other biblical scripture — ones that challenge us with their unfathomable strictures, ones that inspire with their generosity and justice.
To come up with One Big Goal — to start over, to reboot.
Not a to-do, especially in these tenuous times.
But a to-be.
My One Big Starting Over goal is hopeful. A friend and I have been texting each other our varieties of hope:
Vital hope, grounded hope, furious hope, abiding hope, episodic hope, relentless hope.
What is yours?
In the meantime, I will have awakened, attended to my basic needs, fed the dogs who depend on me, tended to my porch and the life that surrounds it.
Preparing myself to start over.