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rosh hashanah

On Rosh Hashanah, Remembering the Friend Who Taught Me What Being Jewish Is Really About

honey

While the days still burn with summer heat, there is a briskness in the evening air which smells of falling leaves and back to school and the promise of new beginnings. This time of year brings back so many childhood memories. As a girl, the excitement of a new school year was at the forefront of my thoughts. But, there was something else that loomed over the horizon during those first few weeks of September. The High Holidays were coming, and with them came the weight of all the choices I’d made that year, both good and bad.

It was simple as a child: Getting my homework done on time was good, frantically copying it from my neighbor before class was bad. Standing up for my friend was good, talking behind her back was bad. Saying a prayer before dinner was good, surreptitiously feeding my peas to the dog was bad.

But, as I got older, things changed. Life didn’t seem so black and white any more. Good and bad choices fused into a murky gray area. The older I got, the less the whole thing seemed to make sense at all.

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And then someone came into my life who changed everything. I met “Beth” at a Hillel get together right before my first Rosh Hashanah away from my family in college. The rabbi was asking us to raise our hand if we belonged to a synagogue growing up. My stomach clenched into an anxious knot. I’d only been away at college for a few weeks, but already I was learning that I was not like most other Jews. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, we had been the only Jewish family for miles around and only attended services once a year for the few hours of the Yom Kippur Neilah.

But, before a single hand shot up, a petite red head forced her way to the front of the room. “That’s not a fair question! You’re going to make people feel embarrassed.“

The rabbi argued with her for a few minutes, but eventually he capitulated.

I followed Beth out after services. We talked for hours about our vastly different childhoods. The only similarities seemed to be our constant struggle to integrate Judaism into our life in a way that felt right.

That night was the beginning of a long, meaningful, intense friendship. Beth took me with her for Shabbat services at observant families’ homes, she introduced me to concepts such as shidduch (dating) and beshert (good match) and shomer nagiah (observant of touch), and every Friday night, after I’d been out partying with my other friends, we’d huddle over her crockpot sipping matzah ball soup and giggling over my stories.

Beth illuminated so many things about Judaism for me. She taught me that it wasn’t just about accepting the heavy burden of rules and restrictions, but also about joy and music and food and community and delightful conversations. She taught me that Judaism wasn’t just a religion, but a thoughtful, questioning approach to everything. She taught me that being Jewish didn’t begin and end at services, but that it was a deep and meaningful thread that tied together every aspect of your life.

On Rosh Hashanah, we would make a big feast and dip everything into honey… lots and lots of honey. So much honey, in fact, that we couldn’t help but have a sweet New Year.

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Every Yom Kippur we would fast together, our hungry stomachs complaining in unison.

As the years passed, our friendship grew stronger and stronger. Not only was she a dear presence in my life, but she was also one of the strongest links to Judaism that I had.

Although the ensuing years brought many changes for both of us, we continued our tradition of celebrating the High Holidays together. Until one day…about seven years ago…when our friendship ended.

To this day, I’m not exactly sure why. For a long time, I blamed her. She was too sensitive. She (being childless at the time) did not understand all the demands of new motherhood. She expected too much from me.

Regardless of the reasons, during one very short, very emotional phone conversation, she told me that she felt numb towards me and that our friendship was over.

I cried that day. And for several days afterwards. I thought about calling her and apologizing…but honestly, I wasn’t clear what it was I had done. All I knew was that that fiery personality that had once put the rabbi in his place was now firmly set against me.

That High Holiday season was hard. I skimmed over Rosh Hashanah with an obligatory apple and honey dip. I couldn’t help but think of Beth as I said the blessing. I waited for the rich taste of honey to coat the New Year with sweetness. But, no matter how much honey I poured onto my apple, a sharp bitter taste remained.

During each of the days between the High Holidays. I thought about calling Beth to make amends. After all, wasn’t Yom Kippur the perfect time of year to set things right, apologize for our transgressions, start off the new year fresh?

I didn’t call. Not that year or the next, or even the three after that. Confrontation has never been my strong suit, and the thought of getting into an emotional argument during an already heavy time of year was just too much.

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Two years ago I went to Rosh Hashanah services with my children. It was the first time in many years that I’d gone. The rabbi gave a sermon about forgiveness amongst friends and how important it is to acknowledge your own contributions to bad feelings. As he was speaking, a petite red headed woman in the first row turned back and smiled at me. Something deep in my soul caught fire. This was it. This was the year I was going to contact Beth.

Before I could lose courage, I excused myself and slipped into the hallway. I sent Beth a quick email. “Thinking of you this year as I do every year around this time. I have so many good memories of our time together. I’m sorry for not being the best friend to you that I could have been. I hope that everything is good in your life. Shana Tovah to you and your family.”

I held my breath and pressed send.

I wasn’t sure if she’d write back. And the truth is, it didn’t matter. This was about me owning up to my end of the deal, about taking responsibility for my actions, about saying I was sorry.

She did write back. Her message was equally short. Something about how she still thought of me and hoped things were well. There was no hint that she wanted to renew our friendship or be in touch any further.

Still, it made me smile.

No matter if I ever see Beth again, our friendship gave birth to a Jewish spark inside of me and inspired me to pass that light onto my children.

I will think of Beth again this year during the High Holidays. But not with the bitter taste that for so long stayed in my mouth. Only with honey. Lots and lots of honey.

 When is Rosh Hashanah 2015? Click here to find out

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