Monday night is Rosh Hashanah, AKA Jewish new year, and I’ve decided everybody should get in on it. With Covid-19, climate breakdown, climate breakdown denial, terrorism, racism, sexism, homophobia, endless lockdowns and a government steeped in sociopathy making life a collective nightmare, I invite all non-Jews to put on their party hats and choose hope, joy and honey cake this evening.
Why are we counting down to midnight in early September? It’s not because we’re bad at time. I mean, we did spend 40 years wandering an objectively small desert, but that just makes us bad at wandering. No, celebrating a new year four months shy of January is a calendar thing.
While most of the world goes by the Gregorian calendar, a few sassy countries do their own thing. Israel uses the Jewish (or Hebrew) calendar, which the global Jewish diaspora heeds for Torah (scriptures) readings, festivals and commemorative days. In the most elementary and potentially flawed explanation, because the Jewish calendar is influenced by both the moon and sun, while the Gregorian only by the sun, these Jewish dates fall on different Gregorian dates every year.
Though religion-wise I’m non-practising and am not a Zionist, I still identify with my culture and many Jewish customs still inform my life. You can take the girl out of the synagogue, et cetera. So, like a lapsed Christian with a Christmas tree, I observe some traditions and rituals to bond with family, honour the dead or eat. Sometimes all at once.
One of these rituals is Rosh Hashanah dinner, mostly because of the food. We light candles, sip wine and say prayers, and then it’s customary to indulge in sweet foods for a sweet year; round foods for the cyclical nature of life and the crown of Hashem (God); and sweet round foods for good measure.
Instead of the plaited challah (bread) eaten weekly on Shabbat (the Sabbath), we eat round challahs, some with raisins, and dip them in honey. We also dip apples in honey. Dates and new season fruits are prevalent, especially the triple threat pomegranate for its sweetness, biblical significance and abundance of seeds, representing mitzvahs (good deeds). And no Rosh Hashanah meal is complete without honey cake.
We eat savoury foods too, such as couscous, carrots, brisket and chard, but they’re a bit like culinary beards – mostly there for appearance’s sake. Most have dates or honey in them anyway. Apparently, fish heads are also common (news to me), a take on the translation of the Hebrew Rosh Hashanah to “head of the year”, also symbolising fertility and abundance.
There are also non-edible Rosh Hashanah rites, most prominently the sounding of the shofar, a ram’s horn used like a bugle that I don’t like because of animal cruelty and horrible sounds. It is used for the ensuing High Holy Days or Days of Awe to call people to prayer, remind them to repent and announce the end of the fast (we’ll get to that later). Blowing the shofar is considered an honour and a mitzvah, and is traditionally done by men because of course it is.
Tashlich (“to cast”) is one of my favourite of all Jewish rituals, symbolising the casting out of sins and referencing several biblical passages. Performed beside a body of water, preferably open and with fish but there’s wriggle room, Tashlich involves saying prayers, shaking clothes and – this bit’s optional – throwing bread into the water to cast away sins. Who doesn’t want to chant, shake and lob food?
You now have the essential ingredients for celebrating Rosh Hashanah and resetting your mind. The food part should be easy, but if at a loss just dip something in honey and say Shanah Tovah (“Have a good year”) to your cat. I’m sure you can find candles and even surer you’ve got wine, and if you’re not within legal lockdown distance of a body of open water, cast your sins into a sink.
You’ll struggle to find a ram’s horn by sunset, but I just discovered you can order them on eBay so you’ll have no excuse for next year. For tonight, just use a recorder or wine bottle or anything you can blow into for sound. And please don’t even think about making resolutions, unless they are to do little and achieve nothing until we’re through the worst of this.
Many extended Jewish families across the world will be apart for Rosh Hashanah, some for the second year in a row. Of course, people are experiencing far greater hardships, Covid-induced or otherwise, but the separation will be tough for some nonetheless. Authorities in Melbourne might want to spot check a certain family from a certain engagement party video, just in case.
If after today you’re still vibing Judaism, the Days of Awe go for another 10 days, ending with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. All you have to do is reflect on your behaviour and not eat for 24 hours and all your sins will be wiped from your record. It’s like intermittent fasting for your soul.
Whether or not you take up my invitation, at least have cake. I recommend this one, with a pinch of ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. Wishing you and yours Shanah Tovah and the very best for 5782, because we count the years differently too.