Reflections on Rosh Hashanah: the Still Point of the Turning Wheelby Patricia Goldblatt August 27, 2018
On Passover, we ask, “ Why is this night different from all others.” Yet it holds the sameness of all other holidays: our religious gatherings at nightfall when all of the precious people of our family come together around the festive table to celebrate our history, our faith. So here we are again at Rosh Hashanah. All of us dressed better, in a happier mood, relishing the food, the time, the love that binds us at the beginning of the new year and the demise of the old one. Here we all are again, anticipating a clean slate, forgiveness, expectation as gleaming as our grandchildren’s shining faces. I’d often heard of family “brogus” being set aside at holiday time so that bad feelings could be relinquished as the new year arrived.
Heralding the brightness of new beginnings alongside the darker desire for atonement and reflection, we watch as Poppa points to those Rosh Hashanah symbols represented by rosy apples, dripping honey, warm challah and sparkling wine, his prayers sanctifying them, the children’s unblinking eyes glued tightly on him. In unison, we yell, “Oi- men,” and laugh, delighted to pass the fruits of the earth to one another, the work of our hands, the blessings of G-d. These repetitions provide the hallmarks of enduring memories throughout our lives.
For me, the days of preparation for dinner is a combination of old favorites of the perfectly stuffed turkey, but also another attempt to emulate my mother-in-law’s excellent gefelte fish. Mine either lacks correct spicing or is too watery even after my yearly attempts to follow her loose descriptions of “pinch of this…handful of that…you’ll know when…” Usually the food receives compliments, but I believe the fish is consumed as part of the new year pattern: that fish precedes soup, which proceeds kugels en route to multiple desserts. Still I wonder if some special ingredient has been omitted from my fish.
At this time of year, I, too, hold close the memories of my parents and the Rosh Hashanah dinners at their house. Never a thought was given to the work that necessitated my mother to rise even earlier than usual or fall into her bed, energy depleted, after the last plate dried. There were squabbles over who would sit next to my father who always commanded the head of the table. He quietly beamed at us, taking in our families, while chanting the prayers, his pronunciation of certain vowels differing from our Hebrew School learning, we noted, wondering why.
My mother darted back and forth, serving and occasionally perching, her legs aching from the last days of cooking, cleaning and now placing her dishes before us. Her mother, I recalled, disappeared into the kitchen to eat by herself, no doubt also collapsing into whatever chair available: to suck chicken feet – if I glimpsed her behind the swinging door to the dining room where uncles sported dark fedora hats and aunts like preening peacocks were festooned in special navy dresses. We cousins waited expectantly for the moment when we might depart the table heaped with food, bound into the rec room below to hoot, shout and play games without adult supervision.
We were not religious people but we came together as a family at these holiday suppers, reminding me of Bella Chagall’s memoir “Burning Lights” as she narrated the annual arrivals of her far flung aunts and uncles in the shetl, Vitebsk, at the end or commencements of the harvests, family on horseback, in carts, the women bearing heavy pots, depicted in her narration of unending dinners that continued late into the velvety nights under Russian skies.
Many years ago my son invited his university friends to Rosh Hashanah dinner and I set myself the task of making as many different kugels as I could find; fortunately all but the potato could be frozen. From zucchini to eggplant to sweet potato with raisins, I scoured cookbooks that offered an impetus to create the puddings. Finally at table, we chortled, attempting to identify the vegetables that all began and ended with eggs, onions and matzoh meal, even foods resembling that cycle of creation and endings of our rituals. Since then, though, the meal has been pared down to only two potato kugels, one sweet, one plain, three or four fruit pies, of course, a honey cake and at least one other completing dessert, usually chocolate, contributing to eating ecstasy. The laughter, the camaraderie, the delight of being together, sharing a meal whose very basis is the reason we are here.
Although the table heaped with offerings is the center of focus, one year, post-dinner wrestled for attention as we received a midnight call, requiring immediate babysitting. Perhaps unable to battle all the kugels, soup, side dishes, meats and deserts crowding his space, grandson number two decided to exit six weeks early. He was named Aaron, the high priest.
But, as well, this time of year holds unforgettable events – sad events that marked our life. My father succumbed to polio one Labor Day weekend when I was 18 months old. Interestingly, no one ever mentioned Rosh Hashanah that year, arguing whether it had been “early” or “ late.” I imagine in my mind’s eye, the family dinner, quieter than usual, especially my buby Molly at the edge of tears, and my mother clutching me as I, more than a year, squirmed in her arms.
And my mother again – close to 92, so many years later, shortly after hearing the shofar blown in her hospital room, passed from this world of beginnings to another.
Perhaps because of the season of my father’s polio, she was always anxious around Rosh Hashanah as a period of transition, likely focusing on holiday preparations to banish frightening thoughts from her mind. She is, not surprisingly, at the periphery of my thoughts during these days. Now as I age, there is so much I would share with her: questions I would ask (about knitting, for sure), so many fears or doubts I would look to her for assurance: that all would be well and turn out fine.
She was so fearful herself, often struggling tenuously to hold our world together like a jigsaw whose pieces might suddenly fall asunder and require reassembling by her able practical hands, handling and rearranging our lives. It’s a task she completed as in the child’s story “The Little Red Hen” that she never ceased to cite in deference to the lack of assistance by her family: “All by her self,” she would loudly affirm, moving between the real and the story tale, endowing herself with magic to erase the troubles and difficulties she had encountered, but overcome in our lives. She, our mother, always silently praying, that this new year would be better than the last.
If she were still on this earth and we were meeting for Saturday lunches, I might behave slightly differently, not avoiding difficult conversations, attempting to banish them into non-existence, probing more deeply and certainly, more sensitively. Not merely scoffing at her refrain that she wished she had become a nurse or an interior decorator. With greater compassion and kindness, I would not counter now, to change the subject, ”Well, an orange cannot be an apple.” Truthfully, as she pondered her life, combing through lost opportunities, I was afraid to listen, not wanting to be hurt by some detail I had not all ready heard.
My parents had a wonderful way to celebrate Rosh Hashanah beyond our family gatherings. Yearly, they would travel to the North where in Canada at this time of year, the air is crisp, the autumnal leaves ripe on the trees, a kaleidoscope of colors. They might spend a day or several, driving through the beauty of nature, their thoughts far from the city. I stayed behind, but one year, cracked open the bottom drawer of a dresser in their bedroom. Heaped inside were the remnants of their life before and during my father’s polio. I poured over the barely readable postcards sent from the hospital where he had spent nine months when he was only 28 years old, robbed of the muscular power of his limbs.
In their exchanges, they write my name as “Paddy,” as an Irish person would. Or maybe the crosses on the “t’s” are sloppy and resemble “d’s,” but the fragments break my heart as I glimpse the broken communication between my parents. Tears overrun my eyes as I sense the immense difficulty even a few words has taken to produce their daily interchanges, but I sense in the scribbled half formed letters the depth of my father’s love for my mother. In my talks to her, I do not want to re-awaken these knives of pain and so we did not unshovel the past. Perhaps this is why she did not speak of the missed holiday dinner that separated them.
So I approach the new year with a mixture of emotions, grateful but longing for my mother’s company, pondering my relationship with my father, but also anticipating a supper with most of my children and grandchildren present, observing their fingers coated with honey, and their chomping Macintosh apples carefully chosen by my husband.
I enjoy the look of the table with my grandmother’s silver and her fine dishes: ones I refused, but finally begrudgingly accepted, because they are heavily ornate, not my style at all. Now I am happy for their place at my holiday table, a silver treasure, their quality beyond cost and symbolizing that I am a thread in my family that has unwound, as evidence of immigrant migration from Poland. I gaze too at the fine porcelain tableware, wishing I had investigated the stories the plates must withhold, although remembering my mother had related: that a peddler would come to the door weekly, selling one precious spoon or dish – and my grandmother would save and save until she could afford to purchase one here, one there, until she had put aside enough dollars to complete a full set. No wonder that even at 90 my mother precariously stooped to pick up a penny!
I wonder what my grandchildren will take from my suppers. Will they joke about the kugels, the unending offering of desserts, some strange detail that I imparted such as my grandmother’s delicious dun-colored handmade wine from purple plums, or the reminisces of rollicking fun I shared with my cousins. Or the disgusting slurp of sucking chicken feet?
With part of my family in Philadelphia, I feel the circle is incomplete, a gap between the beginning and the ending of this yearly event. We will fill that absence when Thanksgiving fortunately intrudes, but of course it cannot be the same as passing down – in person – traditions to the grandchildren, traditions that are saturated with love: from the planning of foods to the folding of napkins to covering the “ kinder” with uninvited hugs and kisses, steeping them in Rosh Hashanah adoration.
The traditions etched in my mind and body have indeed shaped me as a person, a Jewish person acculturated by my laxity of making the traditions fit my life, weighing the precepts of giving anonymously, living an honest life, not fasting when sick, sadacka, for example, against burying dishes in the earth, not eating shrimp, etc: the strange bits I discover when reading the translation of Torah portions written in another age.
Rather, it is the meaning of passing down a closeness, a memory of what it means to participate in a religious ritual – even briefly – that is initiated by an old and sacred story, a story that interrupts the workday to stress what is the most significant and meaningful in my life, that “time out of time.” As T.S. Eliot might conjecture, “ the still point of the turning wheel.” The family at the core of one’s life, the family that even when we’re gone will continue to interrupt the stream of their lives to sit down in order at dusk to participate in a yearly event that reaffirms difference but continuity in Jewish lives.