Rosh Hashana 2011 – a little grumpy, but I’m trying my best.

Tonight is Erev Rosh Hashana – the eve of the Jewish New Year. In the Jewish calendar, days begin and end at sunset, so once the sun has set over the Greater Chicagoland Area, I will be off the grid for three solid days*: Tonight, tomorrow, Friday (the holiday is actually two days long for almost everyone but some in the Reform movement), and Saturday-until-after-sunset, because that’ll be Shabbat. Try not to let the world blow up without me, ‘kay?

Truth be told, I’m not feeling very holiday-ish today. I’ve bought a ton of special food, we have plans for services and time with friends, and it’s hard for me not to love anything that results in me getting to spend concentrated time with my family — but.

But, for me, being Jewish is hopelessly entangled with being Israeli, a thing which I very loudly announced I was tired of being the other day. I have always found the American Jewish community’s attachment to the modern State of Israel as an article of religious faith to be problematic — surely when in prayer, our thoughts are to be on our relationship to the Divine, and not the latest policies of a political construct? Surely we can be good Jews, and yet oppose some of those policies, no matter our familial relationship to the people making them? — but in light of my utter exhaustion with being Israeli this year, I feel even more knee-jerk misanthropic about the notion of spending time with my own people (the people to whom, let’s not forget, I happily joined myself of my own accord. I was at Sinai! Etc, etc, and so on. Oh, bother).

So, you know, writing about the holiday hasn’t exactly felt like a thing I wanted to do. And yet here we are! And here’s the thing that I’ve been thinking about lately, re: Rosh Hashana:

We are taught that Rosh Hashana is not, as I just called it, “the Jewish New Year.” Aside from anything else, it falls on the first day of the seventh month of our calendar, meaning that calling it the Jewish New Year is a little bit like planning your New Year’s Eve bash for the Fourth of July.

The words “Rosh Hashana” do translate to “head of the year” — it’s just not our “head,” our beginning, that we’re celebrating. We’re taught that Rosh Hashana marks the very, very beginning — the world’s creation. The Holy One Blessed Be He completed His work on this day, we believe, which is why we also call the holiday Yom Harat Olam, the day of the world’s birth. Rather than drawing inward on this holiday, in a very real way, we’re meant to look out — to celebrate all of creation, and annually reconsider the role we play on the world stage.

And here’s what recently struck me: Isn’t fall kind of an odd time to celebrate the birth of the world?

This honestly never crossed my mind before. Jewish holidays are very tightly bound to the turn of the seasons, in part because we were once an agricultural society, and in part because we’re taught that our holidays sanctify the cosmic year. You really can’t celebrate Passover in the summer, for instance. It’s in the spring because it’s meant to be in the spring — the holiday depends on the calendar, but the calendar also depends on the holiday. Given that our calendar is, in fact, lunar, the ancients had to go to real trouble to tinker with it to make sure the holidays stay on course; a solar aspect was folded into things, and every third, sixth, eighth, eleventh, fourteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth year, we have a second month of Adar to even things up. That’s a lot of trouble to go to in order to keep the holidays in their seasons — so why are we celebrating the world’s birth in the very season in which the world begins its annual slumber?

I’m guessing the more Orthodox among us would say “because we did the math and that’s when it happened,” but I’m not the kind of Jew for whom that’s a very useful answer.

I don’t know, of course, but I wonder if this doesn’t tell us something about becoming, and being. I wonder if, at the very moment that we are becoming, we might not need to withdraw into the earth, cover ourselves with mulch, and gestate. We like to believe (I like to believe) that the desire to change or become is all we need in order to effect change — from the social protests in Israel, to the revolutions in the Arab World, to the individual upheavals of the heart — but that really and truly isn’t how humans work. We trundle along, bump into the need to change, think about that for awhile, decide to change, struggle with that for awhile, achieve some newness, readjust for awhile. Like that. We cannot just burst into being — we have to lay low and allow the change to seep into blood and bones that are still enough, quiet enough, to really take it in.

So Happy New Year, world! As we all struggle forward, as we are born anew, may be also lay still and quiet enough to allow ourselves to grow straight and true, and bring a much, much better year to a very weary world. May your year be sweet, and may your blessings be as numerous as the seeds of the pomegranate, amen, amen.


*In terms of this blog, that means that comments may get stuck in moderation for awhile. I generally ask my Shabbos goy (aka: the husband, a raging atheist) to fish these out now and then, because one doesn’t want to be rude, especially not for three solid days, but yeah…. If you get stuck, don’t despair! It’ll show up eventually!

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.



  1. “And here’s what recently struck me: Isn’t fall kind of an odd time to celebrate the birth of the world?”

    Not at all, at least, not for me. Birth is a product of death. Our Earth is the product of the deaths of billions of stars, releasing their elements back into the void, coalescing into new stars and new worlds such as this one. Autumn is the time that the Earth shuffles off her cloak, sinks back into the soil to sleep, to prepare for rebirth in the Spring. Autumn tells us that there is much work to be done, to be reborn and become vital again. Autumn is the promise of the future.

    Just my 2 coppers.

  2. David L

     /  September 28, 2011

    Having a new year start at the harvest (or, more specifically, having an old year end at the harvest) makes slightly more sense to me than picking the winter solstice as the ancient Celts (among others, maybe?) did. I’m actually surprised that, off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single major calendar that uses spring as the start of the year.

    • Well, I think that in all those other cases, it has to do with kind of encouraging the sun not to die…! The celebrations begin as the sun has just begun to make the days longer and people can have hope again, so, you know: Throw a party! Then the sun will be committed!

      But, wait a minute, hmm. What about the Chinese New Year? Isn’t that spring? I’ll have to look that up.

      But not right now, I suppose! Shana tova to one and all!

  3. Happy New Year. Cheers.

  4. All the best to you.

  5. caoil

     /  September 28, 2011

    Happy Rosh Hashanah to you, Emily, with whatever meaning tumbles out of it this year for you.

  6. dmf

     /  September 28, 2011

    can i get a witness? best ee

  7. Karin S.

     /  September 29, 2011

    Have had very little time for blog-reading these days–months, really–and am glad I took the time to read yours right now. Lovely post. Thinking of you…I see cupcakes in our future very soon! xoxox

  8. dmf

     /  September 29, 2011
    Wisconsin-raised Craig Thompson is a superstar in the graphic novel world. His big hit “Blankets” went deep into growing up fundamentalist Christian. Love, religion, and Wisconsin winters. Now, Craig Thompson is taking on very different terrain. Very different.
    A mythical, dystopian Arabia. Desert. Harem. Slave girl. Arabian nights. And the beautiful, flowing language of Islam. At the heart of it is still love and religion – or religious stories. It’s bold for a cartoonist, a graphic novelist, to touch that realm with Islam.

  9. dmf

     /  September 30, 2011

    for fridays and the heathens in the house some poetry and poetry talk:
    There are names for what binds us:
    strong forces, weak forces.
    Look around, you can see them:
    the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
    nails rusting into the places they join,
    joints dovetailed on their own weight.
    The way things stay so solidly
    wherever they’ve been set down —
    and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

    And see how the flesh grows back
    across a wound, with a great vehemence,
    more strong
    than the simple, untested surface before.
    There’s a name for it on horses,
    when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

    as all flesh
    is proud of its wounds, wears them
    as honors given out after battle,
    small triumphs pinned to the chest —

    And when two people have loved each other
    see how it is like a
    scar between their bodies,
    stronger, darker, and proud;
    how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
    that nothing can tear or mend.

    ~ Jane Hirschfield ~

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