When my brother Danny first met my wife Phoebe (when we’d just started dating), he looked her in the eye and said, “Ralph is going to torture you for the rest of your life.”
I’m not sure if she believed him then, some six years ago, but she certainly believes it now. For I am an incorrigible wisenheimer, often admonished by my Polish grandmother while tormenting a cousin to tears, “Stop agitatin’!”
It’s always been this way. Back when I covered Baltimore’s Orthodox community for The Sun – excited about some new Talmudic wrinkle I’d just learned — I delighted in telling my non-observant Jewish colleagues just how far from Eden they’d fallen.
They knew I was just needling, but that doesn’t mean they liked it. One guy who took particular offense was Jonathan Bor, a former medical writer for The Sun and to this day a close friend.
Jonathan would complain about the dirty looks his frum neighbors gave him for gardening on Shabbos. I’d mangle some debatable interpretation about not doing anything on the Sabbath that implies Man is in charge of HaShem’s world. (It is not us who make the flowers grow.)
To which Jonathan would tell me to shut up before walking away. Later, he’d tell me to “cut that stuff out,” and I’d promise never to do it again (with my fingers crossed behind my back).
So it was with some trepidation that he agreed to answer a few questions for this column on Rosh Hashanah, celebrated this month from sundown on Wednesday, Sept. 20, to sundown on Friday, Sept. 22.
I told Jonathan that I was serious and wouldn’t embarrass him in a search for fresh thoughts on the holiday, something new without being heretical. Something new after 5,777 years? Worth a try.
Given his low-level of observance (the father of a fabulous saxophone player, Bor’s true religion is jazz, with Miles Davis a deity among deities), I welcomed his response.
“I hated being dragged to temple for an interminable service, but I did like that this was our special new year,” he said. “Everyone else celebrated on Jan. 1st, but this was something apart from that, just like Chanukah and Christmas.”
Old enough to have been in grade school when each day began with Christian prayer (prohibited by the Supreme Court in 1962), he added, “In an odd way, having our own New Year’s Day was like standing in silence while the rest of the class was reciting The Lord’s Prayer. Even for a secular Jew, it set us apart and helped signal our identity as a people.”
The last time I wrote about Rosh Hashanah was more than two decades ago. It was during my time amongst the Orthodox about whom I reported for a secular newspaper. Back then, Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann was principal of Beth Tfiloh’s upper school, having since become president of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass.
When I spoke to him in 1995, Lehmann was adamant that “Happy New Year!” – accompanied by a few blasts of a ram’s horn and perhaps a shot of schnapps – was not the heart and soul of Rosh Hashanah.
“In original scriptural texts, the name most associated with it is Yom Hazikaron — the Day of Remembrance,” said Lehmann at the time. “It’s a day when God remembers and judges us and our deeds, but also the celebration of the creation of the human being.”
And that creation – the world on the third day, man three days later – occurred 5,777 years ago, if the Torah is interpreted literally.
And that – far more than the difference between September and January — is what truly separates the Jewish New Year from the big drunk-fest and day of soon-to-be discarded resolutions noted in the Western World.
It is not so much the beginning of a new calendar but an anniversary — of the very first moments of you and me and everything that came before us — Jew, gentile, beasts of burden, birds of the sky and fish in the seas.
Rosh Hashanah greeting card by Williamsburg Art Company, New York, circa 1910 (Courtesy Flickr)
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