Over the last year, the Forward newspaper ran a series of articles by Abigail Pogrebin about Jewish holidays entitled, “18 Holidays: One Wondering Jew.” Ms. Pogrebin committed to observing traditionally the full year of holidays, from Rosh Hashanah through Tish’ah Be’Av. Although she is Jewish, she had never done so, and she supplemented her observance by speaking with a number of rabbis and Jewish leaders and scholars of all sorts. It was a very thoughtful project, and a pleasure to read.
I must confess that I read her attempts to get to the bottom of Jewish holiday observance with a certain smugness – after all, this is the life that I lead, and these are the thoughts that I had as I took upon myself later in life to be a traditionally-observant Jew. I’ve had these conversations with myself and others. I’ve struggled with the line between appreciating the holidays and feeling overwhelmed by them (particularly in the month of Tishrei, which is stacked with many festive days). Even though I grew up in an observant home, my awareness and observance of the halakhic details of these days is much higher than it was in childhood – we barely knew of the existence of Shavuot, for example, and Tish’ah Be’Av, as far as I knew, only happened at Jewish summer camp.
Her conclusion to the series appeared a few weeks ago, and what I found to be most fascinating about it were her responses to a question which, she claimed, she has been asked over and over: “Did it change you?”
Did this year of six fast days, thirteen yamim tovim / festival days, nine hol hamo’ed / intermediate non-yom-tov festival days, twelve or so minor-holiday days, forty-nine days of counting the Omer, eleven Rosh Hodesh / new month days, three weeks of summer grieving for the destruction of the Temple, and a whopping fifty Shabbatot improve her life? Did these observances grant her more awareness, make her feel more grateful?
Here are her answers to that question:
Yes, because the mindfulness it incited — an unexpected wakefulness — made me look harder at every priority, every relationship, time itself.
No, because I still get restless in long services.
Yes, because I now see the point of rituals I used to think were pointless.
No, because I still don’t see the point of many rituals.
In short, it was a mixed bag. Ms. Pogrebin expresses relief for having survived (!), and states candidly for the record that she will never do it again. She also confesses that she was not able to fully carry out some Shabbat and Yom Tov principles – she did not succeed in turning off her phone, for example (something to which I very much look forward on holidays) – and in some cases used her journalistic distance to avoid immersing herself entirely in the experience of some holidays.But she also clearly states that there is significant value in our tradition, that some things which had never been clear were now sensible and rewarding.
Her project points to a particular set of challenges that Judaism poses for the contemporary person, challenges that must be addressed, moving forward:
- Why do we do all the things that we do?
- What is the value in performing these rituals and customs?
- Who has time for all these holidays?
- And, if I have successfully come up with the justification, the time, and the inclination to dig deeper into Jewish life, where do I start?
These are questions that we must answer as a community. If we don’t, we have no future.
Here is a brief story about tradition, which you may have heard before: Mrs. Goldberg is preparing a brisket for Rosh Hashanah. Her young daughter is watching, and she notices that before she puts it in the oven, she cuts off both ends of the brisket, what looks like perfectly good meat, and she throws them away.
“Why do you do that, Ima?” asks young Hannale.
“That’s the way my mother did it,” reports Mrs. Goldberg. “Let’s ask her.”
They call the grandmother and ask. “That’s the way my mother did it,” says Bubbe. “Let’s ask her.”
They call the great-grandmother and ask the same question. “Why did you cut off the ends of the brisket?” She answers, “Because my pan was too small.”
(BTW, this is such a well-known story with so many variants that it has its own snopes.com entry!)
As Abigail Pogrebin states, most of us do not observe the holidays the way that she did over the past year. And most of us do not know why we do what we do. But many of us grew up in homes in which certain things were done, but we were not sure why. But we did them because, well, that’s just the way we do things.
We like preserving things. There is a general principle in rabbinic Judaism: Minhag avoteinu beyadeinu. Our ancestors’ customs are in our hands.
But times, as we know, have changed. Nothing may be taken for granted any more. The transmission of the brisket recipe, let alone many more essential Jewish rituals, have been left behind. The cycle of expecting our children to make the same choices that we have has broken down in the ocean of infinite choice set before each of us. At the last United Synagogue convention, two years ago, Rabbi Ed Feinstein described America as “choice on steroids.” Given that, we will have to rebuild our notions of what it means to be Jewish.
Ms. Pogrebin describes the value of observing the holidays traditionally as follows:
Something intensifies. Like when my eye doctor gives me option “1 or 2” when he sets my eyeglass prescription, I suddenly saw option 2. The Jewish schedule heightened the stakes somehow -— reminding me repeatedly how precarious life is; how impatient our tradition is with complacency; how obligated we are to aid those with less; how lucky we are to have so much food, so much history, so much family.
I was honestly, maybe saccharinely, moved by mundanity itself — and its simplest joys — more than ever before. The small stuff got sweeter — in my normal, non-religious life: The way my daughter and son talk to each other when they don’t know I can hear them. The way something tastes after a fast. The sight of a delivery guy loaded with bags on his bicycle. My baby sitter’s loss of her brother in Trinidad. The ease of having my college friends at one table. I marked more. Paid attention. Lingered longer.
And yet, her conclusions suggest that the bar is too high. She sees the value in following the cycle of holidays, and yet she is unable to fulfill all the expectations. She is open to it, but still will not jump in. If not her, then who?
You might make the case that the holiday season is about being open:
- Open to tradition
- Open to God
- Open to community
- Open to forgiveness; but mostly
- Open to others
Sukkot, of all holidays, suggests these things the most. On these days, we invite others into our tents; it is about celebration tinged with the lingering sense of repentance and forgiveness. It is about looking back over the holiday cycle and forward into the coming year. Openness. Wistfulness. Frailty. Joy.
We have to open more doors, so that more Jews will enter, so that more will find the same benefits that Abigail Pogrebin discovered: the heightened joys, the greater appreciation, the increased awareness of the need to see beyond one’s own nose. There is a real, tangible value to being invested in Jewish life.
There were a lot of people here on the first two days of Sukkot. Many of us in this community understand Sukkot; we understand how the holidays frame our lives with joy and gratitude, love and appreciation, structure and comfort in difficult times and so forth. We know and appreciate the spiral of our lives as we move upward in time, bolstered by the holy moments of the Jewish year as they come around for each successive mahzor, cycle.
And yet, most of American Jewry does not know very much Hebrew; most of us do not keep kashrut / the dietary boundaries; most of us do not keep Shabbat or festivals in any traditional way; most of us are not marrying fellow Jews.
These are realities of today’s Jewish world. How are all of those non-engaged Jews ever going to drink from the wells of Jewish tradition, to appreciate its value?
We cannot pretend that people who are not committed to living a halakhic lifestyle are simply going to show up at 7:30 on Wednesday morning and start davening Pesuqei Dezimrah. We have to invite them in through other doors. We have to start small. If we want to widen our circle, if we want more people to join us, we have to lead them to an entry point and encourage them to stick at least a toe in. Otherwise, we’re merely cutting the ends off of the brisket for no apparent reason.
We’ll be talking more about this as the year goes on, in various forums.
But meanwhile, for those of us who are here, who have those happy holiday memories, who have those strong bonds with Judaism and Jewish life that keep pulling us in, let’s continue to revel in the power of the holiday cycle. Let’s continue to let those holy moments change us, to inspire us to learn and re-evaluate, and to draw on that inspiration to welcome others in.
We have to create memories for others, and create relationships with those who are not here.
We need these days. The Jewish world needs these days. Open up those doors.
Mo’adim lesimhah, haggim uzmanim lesasson!
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/3/2015.)