In normal times, preparing for the High Holidays is a long and stretched-out network of preparation that I begin in the thick heat of summer. By mid-August, I typically finalize my guests for the holidays, from Rosh Hashanah through Sukkot.
Then I tackle the menus, which revolve around the many symbolic foods, such as carrots and black-eyed peas for a year of good merits; pomegranates, representing the Torah’s many mitzvot; dates to ward off our enemies; and round, golden challahs to symbolize the continuity of life and the full circle of a completed year. By the time the kids are back in school, I am already bringing tall pots of chicken soup to a long, slow simmer and freezing matzah balls by the dozen.
Now, however, September is here and our guest list is bare. The holiday menu file on my computer hasn’t been opened once, and when I took a survey sent by our synagogue last month, I put down that we likely would not attend any in-person services or events this fall.
We are six months into Covid-19 and our prayers have yet to be answered. Like the strange and lonely Passover at the height of the pandemic, it’s now clear that Rosh Hashanah, too, will be rung in without our usual fanfare. I feel an ache in my chest when I think about this strange and foreign approach to celebrating one of the most paramount of Jewish holidays; it’s a longing similar to the homesickness I occasionally felt when I was away from home as a young girl.
And then I’m reminded of my own young girls, ages 10, 8, 4, and just under 2. We usually celebrate Rosh Hashanah with my in-laws, who fly from California to our home in Chicago, and my brother-in-law, who joins us from college in New York. Our house fills with the energy of doting grandparents and of a young uncle willing to get down on the floor to play dolls or Lego. My mother-in-law always arrives with gifts: new dresses, pajamas, jewelry, toys. It is a big production as my girls crowd around her suitcase that is full of promise and treasure — and that same sense of promise repeats itself later, when we all gather around our dining room table, dipping our apple slices in honey as we hope for excess sweetness in the year to come.
Now, however, the excitement is missing. At the mere mention of Rosh Hashanah — and our need to get ready for it — my girls’ faces are a bit dejected. “Why do you need to even start planning?” My eldest asks. “It’s just us.”
True, it’s been “just us” for six months now. And while it was a tough summer with no camp, no family visitors, no trips, and not even a single grain of sand felt between anyone’s toes, it was still filled with a special kind of magic — albeit one born out of improvisations to make lemonade out of lemons, such as our Dunkin’ Donuts picnics in the park, popsicles on the porch, and endless hours of backyard water fun. I honestly believe that one day we’ll look back on this summer with a bit of awe that we managed to make so many happy memories during such a difficult time.
And then it hit me: That same creative approach we took towards making summer special is what we need to elevate Rosh Hashanah this year. True, it won’t be filled with goodies from bubbe, and we won’t be attending shul to join in uplifting communal prayer, but it can be filled with something totally unique and memorable, and something that starts and ends with “just us.”
This year, I am asking my daughters to help me plan the menu. They are suggesting some of their favorite foods, including apple crisp and barbecued ribs. Plus, after a summer during which I invited them all into the kitchen to cook with me, I plan to include each child in the preparation of their favorite dishes. While this is something I typically do with a very Type-A approach, I’m willing to forgo my need for control, especially as I’ve found the physical preparation for the holiday often serves as a precursor to my own spiritual connections to the new year. It will be just us eating our foods, but it will also be just us preparing them.
We may not be attending shul this year, but that doesn’t mean the holiday will go without its usual abundance of treats that the girls typically receive from their youth group leaders and the Zayde-like candyman, who loves to hand out treats to the kids at our synagogue and knows them all by name. I plan to prepare special goody bags for them, so the younger ones can distract themselves on a sugar high while I do my best to pray alongside the older ones in our playroom. Since we are Orthodox, there will be no Zoom services that connect us virtually for communal prayer. It will be just us as we stand together in our home asking that we be inscribed for good this year.
Then, we will all put on our masks and walk outside together to head to the corner to listen as a Chabad local representative blows the shofar at the corner of every street in our neighborhood. Finally, we’ll be able to wish a “shana tova” to our neighbors and experience a taste of the community we so badly miss. It will feel different from previous years, but perhaps it will feel messianic, like the long-awaited prophecy that the shofar will sound in the streets to announce the arrival of the Messiah. Perhaps we will feel more inspired than ever when we hear the most compelling sound of our religion reverberating through our streets. Still, as we’ll be keeping our distance and we listen and internalize, it will be just us.
It’s true, there has been a lot of just us this past half-year. At the start of it, way back in March, I thought I would never get through it. The days were still frosted with cold, all of them melting into one another so I couldn’t distinguish a weekend from a weekday. My nights filled with anxious insomnia and the dread of another morning that would arrive with more Zoom calls and endless hours to fill.
Summer, however, brought sunshine and with that came a bit of hope. It feels right that the Jewish new year is coming on the heels of this revived optimism — I have never before wanted a fresh start as much as I do now. Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity to pray for so much renewal and rebirth; for a healing force to mend many wounds; to heal the ill and the dying; to heal the hurting across generations of victims of systemic hatred.
I may not be planning elaborate holiday celebrations this year, but I want to take my children’s hands and run towards this new year with fervor and hope for better. I want my eldest daughter to take that first bite of apple dipped in honey, look around our table of six and think how sweet it is to celebrate our new year with just us — because, really, it is never just us. As Jews, we are united by the most powerful collective of “just us” — we will all be sitting down with lips sticky sweet with ancient traditions and the welcome threshold of a brand-new beginning upon us all.
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