The New Year: Looking forward, looking back

The ex­tra leaves for the din­ing room table have been dus­ted off and jammed in­to place. The 18 un­matched chairs are be­ing as­sembled around that table in a din­ing room that seems to have shrunk since last Rosh Hasha­nah. A huge brisket is in the freez­er, hog­ging up space.

It’s the Jew­ish High Hol­i­day sea­son again, and yes, pre­par­a­tions are epic. They ex­haust even as they ex­hil­ar­ate. Like so many Jews, I love this ritu­al that marks be­gin­nings. That it comes in Septem­ber, when new starts are in the air any­way, seems al­to­geth­er right. 

But in the pro­cess of look­ing for­ward to an­oth­er year on the Jew­ish cal­en­dar, I in­ev­it­ably look back, too. I think hol­i­days do that to us. There are jumbled memor­ies, tin­ted ro­si­er through the lens of time, of course, but power­ful enough to re­turn in dreams.

Be­cause our Phil­adelphia neigh­bor­hood was solidly Jew­ish, these fall hol­i­days al­ways seemed to take over every home on every street. In memory, if not in truth, all of Wyn­nefield smelled of chick­en soup.

My own moth­er al­ways baked two honey cakes, the tra­di­tion­al Rosh Hasha­nah dessert. One was for us, and an ad­di­tion­al one was for the new neigh­bors who had moved onto our block way back in the late 1940s. Some had strange ac­cents. Some didn’t speak Eng­lish at all.

In sum­mer, when these neigh­bors wore short sleeves, weird mark­ings showed on their fore­arms. The words “Holo­caust sur­viv­ors” were nev­er once uttered in our pres­ence, but my sis­ter and I knew that there was some secret about these people. It would be years un­til we learned what that secret was.

I think of those people whose names I may not have known, but whose ter­rible num­ber tat­toos are still locked away in my memory cells.

Today, ours is an av­er­age Amer­ic­an Jew­ish clan, in­teg­rated in­to the lar­ger cul­ture, but still cleav­ing to a her­it­age as an­cient as the hills of Jer­u­s­alem. We are Amer­ic­ans first, but we also are proudly Jew­ish at a time when anti-Semit­ism has sur­faced again in places across the world, and too close to home. So much has changed. So much hasn’t. 

At our hol­i­day table, we’ll pass the sweet chal­lah bread in the prim­it­ive bas­ket made of pops­icle sticks that a daugh­ter cre­ated in Sunday School eons ago.

Some­body will in­sist that the chick­en soup was bet­ter last year, while someone else will adam­antly ar­gue that this year’s ad­di­tion of just a touch of dill ac­tu­ally has im­proved it.

And then in a flash, we’ll be on to something a bit more com­plex than the chick­en soup.

Is­rael will al­ways bob to the sur­face. Split opin­ions on that, even with­in the bos­om of fam­ily. Our val­ues, our polit­ics, our views about re­li­gion it­self, will be on the agenda as we eat, ar­gue, laugh, chide the chil­dren who are mis­be­hav­ing, and warn the older ones that cell phones will be con­fis­cated if they dare to be­gin tex­ting.

Along the way, we’ll re­flect on a world that makes any­thing on those real­ity shows seem like fluff: the tinder­box that is the Middle East; ter­ror­ists; nat­ur­al dis­asters; and un­em­ploy­ment that nips at the heels of so many. In our own mi­cro­cos­mic uni­verse, we’ve struggled with the mo­nu­ment­al and mundane, re­nun­ci­ations and losses, re­con­fig­ur­a­tions of fam­ily in an age of rampant di­vorce. Both my east­ern European grand­moth­ers had warned that trouble is al­ways there. It was a prim­it­ive, wary way of look­ing at the world, one de­rived from the time when just be­ing Jew­ish was in­her­ently dan­ger­ous. And gen­er­a­tions later, we want our own young to know that be­lea­guered his­tory.

There they sit - the sev­en grand­chil­dren who re­mind us by their very ex­ist­ence that the blood lives, and that some­how, those an­ces­tral ghosts are with us after all. By the end of our cel­eb­ra­tion, when our guests are start­ing to leave and the moun­tains of dishes loom lar­ger than life in the kit­chen, I will prob­ably turn to my hus­band to say, in the short­hand of the very mar­ried, “Well, an­oth­er year.”

And he will un­der­stand all the grat­it­ude and hope and memory en­closed with­in those words. ••

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