Don’t Settle for Gefilte Fish on Rosh Hashanah

by Rachel Eden August 27, 2018


Cropped shot of a group of young friends toasting during a dinner party at a restaurant

Hi friends, before we bail on religion, why don’t we think together about what we might do with our Jewish inheritance? Let’s start the conversation this Friday night. (Also, there will be scotch.) XO Sharon.” Sharon Brous pressed send to her email that culminated from a desire to breathe new life in her own Jewish journey. In her 2016 TEDWomen talk, Brous compares people’s relationships with Judaism today to a marriage of many years. While the wedding day experience years ago was emotionally intense, as the betrothed publicly proclaimed their love for one another in a holy bond, those same two people would be considered fortunate to remember booking dinner reservations for a current anniversary. So too, Judaism’s sacred revelatory experience at Mount Sinai that manifested the commandments for successful living is now considered by many as a distant and irrelevant inheritance.

Expecting around 20 visitors to arrive in response to her email, Sharon Brous greeted 135 eager guests for Shabbat dinner that night. She described her mixed group of rabbis, atheists, seekers and cynics as being so deeply touched by this dinner, many said it was the sole meaningful Jewish experience they had encountered in their whole lives. Immediately following that feedback to her fateful Shabbat dinner 13 years ago, Sharon quit her job to serve as senior rabbi and founder to a Los Angeles-based Jewish spiritual community called IKAR, named after her aspiration to share the very heart of Judaism with others.

Whether one affiliates with Sharon Brous’ group or not is irrelevant to connecting with her accurate yet tragic portrayal of the typical Jew’s experience and her desire to bring about positive change. Several years ago, I debated what being Jewish means with a group of college students. Diverging opinions emerged, but we concluded our discussion with one essential thought: Judaism is not designed to be contained to one day at synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, a few hours at Hebrew school, or a single charitable donation to a Jewish cause.

If you are reading this, you’re engaging with a Jewish magazine. Does it make you feel more Jewish? You likely celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah, paid a membership due at your local synagogue, visited Israel and I’ll bet a pastrami sandwich on rye has met your acquaintance. So now what? Are you a card carrying member of the Jewish nation? Is that the extent of what it means to be a Jew? Why be Jewish anyway; why hold on to a birthright if it is empty to us?

If Sharon Brous is correct in comparing a newlywed couple to our nation at Mount Sinai and an older couple to our current Jewish community, then the problem — along with its solution — begins to surface. We have become apathetic because so much of our spirituality becomes routine; an empty shell of what we were taught at home or in school. Disconnected routine is destroying our Judaism, relationship with G-d, as well as our own potential.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, twentieth century sage and author of the highly influential Jewish ethics book, “Alei Shor,” points out that no matter what level of miracle is happening around you, if you’re not open and aware, your life will continue unchanged and unaffected. Rosh Hashanah is not just a holiday with honey cake and the sounds of the shofar. It is the holiday that sets the tone for our year, it’s the time we orient our lives around our Creator instead of ourselves. Rosh Hashanah shakes us awake from our deadening routines and begs us to joyfully make the most of our lives. If we just drag ourselves to synagogue, recite words from a prayer book that mean nothing to us, and follow standing or sitting instructions for the length of the service, we have (at best) gained nothing. More likely, we have reinforced the message that our Judaism is a burden we must bear, a drain of our time and energy. Many of us know being Jewish means something, we just don’t know what or why.

Consider what a difference spending just one hour preparing for this holiday would make. Briskets and casseroles aside, one hour would better prepare our minds and hearts to be open to others, pour our hearts out to G-d and not give up hope on ourselves. Anyone still living for the “Fiddler on the Roof” version of Judaism complete with gefilte fish has been duped into a knock-off version of the real thing.

Judaism is unsustainable unless it checks all the boxes of enabling us to live successfully, proving truthful and right, meaningful and fulfilling and (maybe most importantly to many of us) being joyful and pleasurable. Upon reflection, we’ll find endless possibilities for heightened mindfulness and therein lies our best weapon against apathy and a far more expansive definition of our Judaism. We must acknowledge that Judaism transcends a bar mitzvah party, bagels with lox or a short time spent in a prayer service. Judaism is our identity and essence, with every single moment an opportunity to engage mindfully with ourselves, each other and G-d. Before we bail on our religion, why don’t we think together about what we might do with our Jewish inheritance? Let’s start the conversation this Rosh Hashanah. (Email me for a meal. Also, there will be scotch.) XO Rachel .


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