This article appeared in the Sept. 22, 2006 Jewish Advocate.
Holiday rituals incorporate the personal, the spiritual, the familial
By Susie Davidson
Many people experience a traditionally richer and more meaningful pattern of daily life during the High Holidays. It’s a time wholly separate from the rest of the year, a period of numerous holidays, customs, and gatherings, and, for some, individual rituals. These, of course, are predicated upon one’s own spiritual and personal beliefs, as well as their personal situations. Little observances of our own can enhance the holiday experience in a unique and heartfelt manner which may feel indulgent, but no worries about that, says Rabbi Moshe Waldoks of Temple Beth Zion.
“You owe yourself the time to do something for yourself in these Ten Days of Reflection,” Reb Moshe states in his essay “Hanhagot: Spiritual Directives for the Ten Days of Repentance.” His suggestions begin with the concrete and dietary - stop caffeine intake until after Yom Kippur, he says, and refrain from eating nuts. Eat a lot of carrots, though. “In Ashkenazi tradition these are called mehren,” he says, “which also connote growth and fecundity.” Avoid spicy foods before Kol Nidre, he advises, but carbo-load as you wish.
“Traditionally, I visit my parents’, grandparents’, and relatives’ graves,” says M. David Cohen of Malden. A former Air Force Acting Jewish Chaplain who was based in Paris during the Vietnam War, Cohen also conducts special visits at local veterans’ hospitals, and meets with several friends to plan volunteer events for the coming year. He hosts a Monday Night Live Program on Malden Access TV, and produces the Dining with David cable TV show. “I usually call those with whom I may have lost contact or have not spoken to as frequently as I used to,” he said.
Waldoks agrees. “Make that phone call you've been delaying for so long, even if it's overseas,” he says.
“Most of all, I look forward to serving as ‘official greeter’ at my synagogue, Tifereth Israel,” said Cohen. “I personally welcome every person, young and old, who arrives to observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”
Those who partake in rituals tend to look beyond rote observance. “I dipped an apple in honey today, symbolizing my wish for a sweet new year,” says blogger Abigail Nussbaum of Israel on wrongquestionsblogspot.com, “but I did so with the understanding that dipping-an-apple-in-honey is an accoutrement, one that falls far short of penetrating the importance of the day - a new beginning, but also the beginning of a period of judgment and reflection, a final opportunity to amend one's faults and begin the new year as a better person.”
“Because I can walk to the Sudbury River, I perform tashlich for my family and extended family in the area,” said Rosie Rosenzweig, a Resident Scholar in Women's Studies at Brandeis University. “Once I composed a whole ritual where the kids walked with the parents and reviewed their year,” she said. “We read from liturgy on forgiveness and repentance, on Tshuvah, the return to one's holiness, and on the shedding of Klipot, the shells that defend again this return.”
“Every year, I go to synagogue in the same seats at Kehillath Israel that I’ve had for 58 years,” says Mollie Paren of Brookline, who is in her late 90s. There, she greets friends in nearby seats, who include Bernie and Rena Olshansky, Judy Meyers and Mark Pasternak, Martha Winer, and Evelyn Millstein and her niece Helen Quint. “We wish everyone a healthy and happy New Year, then we go home,” she said. “I eat my own gefilte fish, some friends might drop over, and then I get schlefidick!” But after 3 or 4 hours, she changes clothing and heads back to the K.I.
“In terms of personal renewal, I'm going to be running a campaign encouraging members of Temple Israel in Sharon, which is a Conservative shul, to visit the mikveh before the High Holidays,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor, who is an educator, musician and founder of Shefa, the Conservative Jewish Activists’ Network.
Reb Moshe also advocates going to a mikveh on Erev Yom Kippur afternoon, or if one can’t, then to take a “very long hot, fantastic, shower.” Shampoo last, he says, “keeping a vision of keter, or crown, in mind.”
He also advises on meditative practices (“Try to sit down, still, with feet on the ground, for at least five minutes every day between now and Yom Kippur….Try a positive visioning exercise, perhaps a vision of an ideal Jewish community you would want your children to live in”), as well as ways to say prayers (“Read the Book of Jonah … - it's very short - and be prepared to ask at least one question about it. Study the first paragraph of the Shma three times every day:.. Wrap yourself in a tallit every day and recite the Shma as if it were the last one you would ever say”), dress (“Wear white clothes on Yom Kippur. If you've ever wanted to walk into a store and ask for a kittel, now's your chance….By the way, a kittel can also be an oversized white shirt or blouse, preferably without pockets, over white tennis slacks. Use your imagination…..No leather on Yom Kippur….Avoid heavy makeup and perfumes), and exercise (“Take a walk every day until Yom Kippur, for at least 20 minutes. Walk meditatively if possible, being conscious of the way your body moves, how it takes steps, etc. While you are walking, keep your eye out for schach, evergreens for your sukkah roof.”). All of these hints, and more, can be found on ShalomBoston.com at www.shalomboston.com/Waldoks.php.
Invite or cajole others into joining your rituals. When Rosenzweig was teaching Hebrew school, she devised a "river in a box," which was essentially a very long piece of blue fabric. The children wrote down things they wanted to change in themselves, as well as actions they wished to apologize for, she explained. "I never read these. I asked them to rip them up into shreds, like the prayers one writes at a sage's grave.” Her “river” was pulled out, and filled the room. Children deposited their chets, or sins, into the fabric, which she folded up and disposed of.
She expanded the ritual for adults. “We meditated, and my instructions took them through the initial relaxation, through breathing techniques, and through a Shma meditation that I wrote,” she said. The group did a call-and-response Shma, and when they came out of the meditation, they wrote their "chets" and tore them to shreds.
“This is based on S’Fat Emet, translated by Art Green on the weekly parsha,” Rosenzweig explained. “In this work, sacrifices are seen as transformative, repenting experiences,” she said. “As the adults watch their papers reduced to ashes, they meditate and wish for their own transformation.” The technique was presented at a CAJE (Conference for Alternatives in Jewish Education) conference in Seattle.
Synagogues often conduct “collective rituals” for congregants. “On Yom Kippur afternoon, we have a learning session,” said Candice Wesson, Education Director at Beth El Temple Center in Belmont. “There, the chair of our adult learning committee, as well as lay leadership, past presidents, members of the ritual committee and interested congregants who are pursuing adult learning, gather to make educational use of their afternoon,” she said. The session is led by a different person each year, but generally, the group picks an appropriate, current topic to discuss.
At Shirat HaYam in Nantucket, many people on the island join congregants for tashlich at Brant Point lighthouse. “We sing songs, say prayers and toss our ‘sins’ away in Nantucket Bay,” said synagogue President Susan Hochwald. Some congregants arrive by kayak, she said. “Last year we started a post-Rosh HaShanah catered luncheon held at the house we rent for the Rabbi,” she said. “From there, we all walk to the beach for tashlich.” Services at Shirat HaYam are noted for their warm and welcoming atmosphere; there are no tickets for admission. “My family's personal custom for holy day observance,” said Hockwald, “is very much tied to what the congregation does. Services, study and communication with old and new friends, in a place that inspires awe and contemplation.”
Waldocks stresses the importance of Zachor (“remember“, and also, of looking to the future. “Prepare a note with the names of those you are saying Yizkor for on Yom Kippur, and try to identify at least one attribute of these individuals that you have integrated into your being,” he said. Tell family members who they were, as you light the yartzeit glass before leaving for Kol Nidre. Discuss interviewing elderly relatives over the coming year. And he has a suggestion for them as well: “If you're a grandparent, try to find out what your grandchildren are about.”