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. ••