Monday, September 29, 2008

A New Year

Tonight at sundown, the two Jewish High Holy Days marking the start of our new year begin--Rosh Hashanah. Unlike on the Christian Gregorian calendar, which is solar and counts forward from the ground zero of the birth of Jesus and backward for the time before that, our calendar is lunar and runs in a straight line forward into the future, supposedly from the beginning of time. Tonight we begin the year 5769. Like in most Jewish families, I spent my spare time this past week preparing special dishes to be consumed by family and friends over an especially-beautifully set table. In many secular Jewish households, this meal, and perhaps the sending of Rosh Hashanah cards, is the only observance of the new year that takes place. I know because I grew up in one of those families. For a lot of other families, these two holy days and Yom Kippur mark the only time they will enter a synagogue all year.

After marrying into an observant family, initially, I was charmed by the traditions of Judaism. In my early thirties, when I began to actually study how those traditions came about and the deeper philosophy of life embodied in them, I was enchanted. That sense of wonder has never left me even through all the disenchanting moments that I have encountered in embracing synagogue life (and there have been some monumental disenchanting moments!) I believe the reason for this is that for every petty, nasty, or dishonest personality with whom I have come in contact, there have also been wonderful, caring, and intelligent people who are my friends, teachers, mentors, and role-models. Our traditions provide a blueprint for those of us who are still struggling with meeting the challenges of day-to-day living with a sense of acting, not in a business-as-usual mode, but with an eye to helping improve the lives of those around us, and thereby our own lives. For me, there is no better avenue to invest meaning in my life.

I am always struck by the contrasting approaches to celebrating a new year. The Jewish new year is welcomed with hope, a bit of apprehension, and contemplation. The secular new year is welcomed with revelry and abandon. I have always felt more attached to the September new year. With teachers and students beginning a new school year after the end of summer vacation, the timing always seemed more authentically like a new year to me. During Rosh Hashanah, the metaphor is that of asking God to inscribe us in the book of life. During Yom Kippur, the metaphor is that of a sealed decree. This year is singularly difficult with Mom at home in hospice care. While any one of us could suddenly die in an instant, the poignancy of contemplating who shall live and who shall die in the coming year under these circumstances is all the more urgent.

Mom is greatly looking forward to Ari visiting with us for the next two days and misses her great-granddaughters, who will be feasting on their father's wonderful dishes in Baltimore while he oversees his school and tries to give his students a sense of meaning as well as a sense of tradition. I am content to know that my granddaughters will have all the lovely memories of time spent with their family feasting and learning the significance of their heritage, although I also will miss their presence at my table.

My brother and sister have arranged to stay with Mom while Ari, Saul and I attend services. I am really looking forward to my mornings of quiet prayer. When we return, we will have leisurely meals, good food and great conversation. Some of the dishes I prepared include homemade challah, matzoh ball soup, sliced brisket in gravy, meatballs and Moroccan sausage, kasha and bow tie noodles, tilapia lamaize, Israeli salad, potato salad, apple-shaped oatmeal molasses cookies with apple butter filling, sweet potato bundt cake with coconut brown sugar glaze, and apple slices dipped in assorted honeys, like chestnut and orange blossom (I collect honey during my travels).

This morning, Mom had warm bread pudding that I had just taken out of the oven with the top of a chocolate and peanut covered vanilla ice cream cone melted over it for breakfast. As a hospice patient, she is encouraged to throw caution to the wind when it comes to food, even with diabetes. Eating it certainly made her very happy and, as careful as she has been all her life, I think that the lack of medical value placed on happiness grossly underrates the internal ability of the spirit to heal the body and mind. I can definitely see, in her case, that pills to heal the body and mind were counter-productive. When the decree is finally sealed and life is coming to an end, which part of my days will be most meaningful? Perhaps it will turn out to be baking bread pudding, or perhaps it will be praying that I am able to bake it.

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