Rosh Hashanah has always been one of my favorite Jewish holidays because it is, by far, the most joyous. Unlike Hanukkah or Passover, there are no wars to remember, no blood that has been shed. Not until Yom Kippur do I need to deal with the darker side of welcoming the New Year; there is no fasting or repentance, yet. For now, I can simply remember the blessings of the closing year and welcome with open arms those to come. I feel the blowing of the shofar, a cathartic release of all the tension and bitterness that has built up within me, replacing it with the sweetness of honeyed apples and the fruits of a new harvest.
This Rosh Hashanah is particularly significant for me; it both marks my triumph over a very difficult year and seals my commitment to accepting all of the responsibilities of a Jewish woman. That is why, this year, I will ascend the bima to take an aaliyah before my congregation in celebration of this High Holy Day.
When a woman from my synagogue called me asking for volunteers to participate in the Rosh Hashanah services, I was hesitant at first. It has always been the habit in my family to slip in late to services, perch tentatively on a chair at the very back of the congregation, and leave early, heading to all the other plans we had made for that day. Our presence was more a bow to ceremony than an actual spiritual experience. Some years, we didn’t attend at all.
Over the course of the past year, however, I have keenly felt the importance of solidifying my identity as a Jew, and my participation in the Rosh Hashanah service will seal my commitment to that identity.
Growing up in New York, the fact that I was Jewish seemed a matter of little importance. There were delis full of bagels and lox on every corner, to be had even for those who didn’t light candles on Friday night. This spring, however, I studied for a term at Oxford University. There I learned what it means to feel like “the other” as a Jew. Everyone I encountered was Christian and most of the university revolved around the church. I was invited many times to Evensong at Christ Church. The service was exquisitely beautiful, but not my own. As the weeks wore on, I felt more and more like a part of me was missing that I hadn’t even known was there in the first place, like my foundation was crumbling.
When I returned to New York, I immediately returned to the synagogue where I had become a Bat Mitzvah and joined the Torah study group that meets every Shabbat morning. I was welcomed back with open arms by the Rabbi and the congregation. Though I have two jobs and am going to school full time, I always take time to attend the group and the services that follow. We eat bagels and joke around in Yinglish (our own blend of Yiddish and English) while studying the history of our people, debating textual issues, and interpreting the Torah’s commandments for righteous living. The synagogue is instant community; and I had felt so lost without it. When I attend each week, I feel completely renewed, firmly rooted in a shared faith and identity.
This past Saturday, the rabbi shared with us some thoughts about the coming holiday that really enhanced my own feelings towards it. He drew attention to the fact that Rosh Hashanah, alone among the Jewish holidays, is celebrated at the new moon rather than the full. He then went on to give an explanation from Reb Aryeh Leib of Ger (1847-1906). Reb Leib posits that since, during the new moon, celestial light is hidden from us, we draw instead upon the light within ourselves: “For every Jew [on Rosh Hashanah] there is illumination by the hidden light of goodness, that ‘light is sown for the righteous,’ which lies hidden within.” Rosh Hashanah allows us, as Jews, to discover new aspects of ourselves. As I step up to the bima, I will be celebrating my own self-discovery as a Jew and taking my rightful place within this rich community and tradition.