Home for Rash Hashanahby Patricia Goldblatt August 28, 2019
They’re coming. They’re coming,” I sing in my head. Because my youngest child lives far away in Philadelphia, every year I bemoan the fact that her family, especially my three grandchildren are not seated at my Rosh Hashanah dinner table. Unlike other holiday dinners celebrated at my sister’s or my sister-in-law’s, Rosh Hashanah is mine. As the days approach, I make copious lists, structure the cooking, decide what can be made fresh, but what must be frozen so that I’m not totally exhausted by the time the night arrives. Some years I plan to make kugels, sweet and savory; other times, it’s unending confections of deserts, but it is always a balance to ensure meat or chicken remain the star.
A flurry of activity underscores the weeks before as I conjure the dinner, the food, the table set with my mother or grandmother’s Rosenthal China, her Rosepoint silver divided between my sister and me. I picture the flowers–fall jewel tones, or more likely my favourite pinks, purples and whites. I think of the lit candle sticks warming, enhancing and glowing on the upturned faces of my family. I foresee my husband holding up two round, twisted challahs, one with raisins, one plain, blessing them, along with the first rosy apples of the season, and passing them slathered with honey in its little honey pot shaped like a beehive. I smile to think of the children licking their stubby fingers, covering the good ivory napkins, but also their faces beaming behind streams of delicious sweetness.
And this year, they’re coming: the blonde bookish six year old; the four year old who proclaims with hands at hips, “I’m just a kid”; and her baby sister who is always too busy to FaceTime, impishly grinning as she turns from the screen.
Previously, because Philadelphia is an eight hour drive from our home, I’ve had to accept an incomplete table, but this year, in spite of disrupting work and school schedules, they’re coming, they’re coming. For Rosh Hashanah is about fresh starts, new beginnings, making new rituals with family. And I want my grandchildren to share in the messy fingers, the brief, but age-old prayers as we all proclaim, “Oi- men” together, tearing and passing the luscious challah, laughing and being together as a family.
I want them to become aware that there is something so magical about holiday dinners, especially at the beginning of a new year. I recall my earliest days at Hebrew School, the huge book drawn in chalk on the green board and my teacher’s dark promise that some of us, quaking little girls, would be written in the book of life, the others in death. But prayer and repentance might assuage the doom. It was a frightening moment, serious and foreboding. And of all my days in Grade One, this is the only one in which I can recapture Miss Glazer’s solemn face.
I want my grandchildren’s memories to be filled with the sweetness of promise, good deeds, the warmth of their adoring grandparents, the clutch of their cousins, aunts and uncles. For me, besides the romantic idea of the mysterious dark, there is that feeling of being enclosed together in the evening with only the flicker of candles to suggest a greater sense of awe. Besides, those coming from afar will complete their journeys before nightfall. They will arrive at dusk, G-d welcoming us all.
Jewish holidays commence at dusk, the skies veering towards navy and the promise of twinkling stars separates our thoughts, our prayers and rituals from ordinary workdays days. I wonder about this.
Chabad says, According to the Jewish calendar, not only Jewish holidays begin at nightfall, but every day does…in Genesis: [we read], “And it was evening, and it was morning; day one … And it was evening, and it was morning; the second day etc. By mentioning evening before morning, the Torah defines a day as beginning with the evening, followed by the morning.”
One complete day then contains both night and day, dark and light, a continuous flow that mirrors our lives of good and bad, beginnings and endings, births and deaths.
I cannot help but think of those vanished forever in concentration camps, praying in secret, surreptitiously sharing their memories of Rosh Hashanah dinners, their tables covered in fine linen heaped with food: soup, lockshin, matzoh balls, brisket, chicken, cakes and sweets–a world destroyed, lost, but momentarily recaptured through images of family, the sounds, the smells, the touches, the looks.
We silently greet them at our table, feeling them close, holding their memories dear. The words intoned at Yizkor during Rosh Hashanah services at temple, “At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn; We remember them … At the beginning of the year and when it ends; We remember them. When we have joy we crave to share; For as long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us as, We remember them.”
And those others, our parents who came to the new world, now also sadly departed, I think on them at Rosh Hashanah: my mother with her pert scarf at her neck, her arms opening to hug us at the door; my grandmother who sat in the kitchen between delivering food courses to all of the mishpocha, to suck a chicken bone or light a cigarette in the quiet of the moment, her eyes heavy, likely missing her own parents left in Poland.
I store Rosh Hashanah in my own child’s eye as thrashing about with my cousins after dinner as we played long into the night while the grownups in pearls and Borsalino hats continued their prayers in the dining room above our heads. How I cherished and longingly anticipated our reunions back then, also chanting to myself, “They’re coming. They’re coming.”
My mind jumps to Marc Chagall’s wife, Bella, who in her memoir, “Burning Lights,” describes the arrival of her relatives in Vitebsk for holiday supper, creating the clatter of pots, the aromas of food that have been cooking for days, the exhaustion of three day travel, but the coming together to celebrate Hasidic Judaism in Russia.
But now a sedate 70 and more, I exchange the songs and stories in my head for a present day visit with my own grandchildren, eager to observe them at my Rosh Hashanah table, sharing the night with their own big boy cousins, aged eight and eleven, watching them put their tousled heads together or sing a blessing in perfect Hebrew that impresses all gathered at the table. We clap in unison in delight.
Rosh Hashanah, about time past, our connections to Sarah and Abraham, those departed, but also those present: our mishpocha, our families, who like my mother’s welcoming hugs at her door, sing out “La Shana Tova,” blessing all with long life and good health in the year to come.