Galilee Diary #507, September 8, 2010 Marc Rosenstein
Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord. -Leviticus 23:23-25
The days of Elul have been inexorably ticking off, yet the weather has remained steadfastly summery, with no relief from the heat even at night. There is a mismatch here, as we know it is just a few days until Rosh Hashanah. Finally, today, there were clouds that didn't burn off in the morning, and in the evening I noticed that achatzav (squill) had shot up in our front garden. The tall stalks of tiny white flowers of the chatzav that sprout around Rosh Hashanah directly from the bulb, with no leaves, are a distinctive symbol of the season; it was comforting to see it and know that the cycle of the seasons has not been knocked totally awry.
Rosh Hashanah is problematic in Israel. The other holidays have contents and rituals that have lent themselves to secularization, and thus have become part of the national culture. You don't have to believe in God to light Chanukah candles; most kids who build a sukkah are not doing it in fulfillment of halachic requirements; and even Arabs dress up on Purim. Indeed, even Yom Kippur has developed a sort of non-religious identity: since the streets are mostly empty, a custom has developed of kids spending the day riding their bikes freely around the towns; and most people fast; and in the years since 1973, the day has attained national significance as a commemoration of perhaps the most traumatic day in the history of the state, a sad coming-of-age when individual tragedies were bound up with the shattering of national myths.
By the way, the two gift-giving holidays in Israel are Rosh Hashanah and Pesach (not Chanukah). However, the emphasis is not on personal gifts but on family gifts - plants, gift baskets, decorative ceramic and glass utensils, candy assortments, are all popular. Most employers have given up on physical gifts, and simply give a token item (e.g., candy or wine) along with purchase vouchers for popular stores.
But what to do on Rosh Hashanah itself? The beach? The synagogue? Both will be crowded. And how, if communal prayer is not part of your repertoire, but you feel the need to recognize the specialness of the day, will you do so? If all else fails, of course, you can always eat - and that's what many of us do. Remember, in Israel, even if you live at opposite ends of the country, the extended family can gather without recourse to air travel or even a very long drive. A custom, especially among Middle Eastern Jews, that has gained general popularity in recent years, is the "seder" of special foods at the evening meal. In some cases it is treated informally, but many families take it quite seriously. The idea is to partake of a series of foods whose form or whose name can be connected in some way with a wish for good things in the year ahead. Honey, of course, for a sweet year, is the obvious and universal example. Also pomegranates, for a year as full of blessings as the fruit is of pips. But then there are beets (the Hebrew selek being a play on "getting rid" of our enemies); and carrots (gezer being a play on averting the evil "decree"); or the tradition of eating the head of a sheep, or a fish (or if you're a vegetarian, a lettuce?), so that "we will be the head and not the tail;" etc., etc. And those not bound by family or ethnic traditions are free to make up their own puns and eat the foods that go with them. There is something cheering about the way this rather lighthearted custom has spread, crossing ethnic lines; yet it is more than just a set of silly puns, for it helps convert the meal into an event with some religious content, and represents a light way of dealing with a heavy thought: the turning of the year is a turning point, a time when we recognize the uncertainty of what is to come, and the need to invoke whatever powers we can to help make the new year one of blessing.