I celebrated Rosh Hashanah – the birthday of creation of the planet – with my first expedition into Jewish Orthodoxy. My roommate Lauren and I spent Erev Rosh Hashanah at the UMN Chabad house, which is probably the most welcoming place around.
And, for my comfort zone’s sake, I was grateful everyone was so welcoming because I became instantly aware that was a very different group from who I’d been brushing shoulders with in Reformed and Conservative circles. Beards, for instance. Lots of them. And side burns. Several people had the tzitzit going on all the time, and, hey, mysticism is very In.
Once the service got going, though, I got pushed even more out of both my comfort zone and the main service by way of a gender segregating partition down the middle of the room. I’d imagine this partition’s presence might be part of why the fella’s side was better attended than the girls’ side, and unfortunately it impacted the quality of girls’ side services. For one, the rabbi hangs out mainly on the dude side, and that’s where the singing gets most raucous. I wasn’t even sure, at first, if I was allowed to sing along or read aloud at first because the girl’s side was so much more reserved. But, hey, to start the evening, the girls’ side got to light candles, led by the Rabbi’s wife Chavi. I’ll need to ask what exactly that meant, but it was lovely. I don’t know why, but I really love candles.Fast forward to dinner. Judaism is all about symbolism, and my favorite bit of symbolism is that sugar signifies sweetness in new ventures. At Bar Mitavahs and before couples get married, you toss candy at them. In Church! At Rosh Hashanah, you dip apples in honey! Try it guys! Cheaper AND, I’d posit, more delicious than caramel. Also, you get to dip the challah bread in honey, which I was told isn’t a year round thing.
Also: gefilte fish. It’s poached and minced fish all crammed back together, and I’d recommend all you carnivores get on board.
Oh, and then there was the moment when I came out as a Mormon. One of the girls asked where I’m from (Utah, dude), and she responded with, “Oh wow. Is that kind of awkward since aren’t there a lot of Mormons there?” My cover was blown, so I reveled in it by responding, “Well, actually it’s not awkward at all because” dramatic whisper, “I am a Mormon.” She got a really horrified look that I assume was because she thought she’d offended me. Later we got in a talk about Christian versus Jewish holidays (Jews have it way better, I think; except for the whole not-getting-them-off-work thing, which has to blow), and she said she’d always been jealous of Christian holidays, like making ginger bread houses at Christmas. I wanted to let her know that gingerbread houses are pretty secular, since Jesus didn’t live in one, but I thought better of it.
Okay, so day two of Rosh Hashanah, I was accompanied by Joe. I hadn’t been able to observe, yet, if it was appropriate for males and females to make physical contact here. So, we began the evening with a science experiment: he was to warmly extend his hand to the rabbi, and then I’d see if the rabbi moved on to shake my hand. We discovered that, no, the rabbi wouldn’t touch females. Right after that I heard a girl ask a male if he shook hands, and I decided that would be my appropriate question upon introduction, and so far it has gone well.
Okay, so the service was quite similar to the previous night, but quicker. Also, as a plus, there were more girls, and so our side was more vocal, which made it fun. This time, at dinner, I came out as a Mormon more quickly. There were tons more people in attendance, and so answering questions about being a Mormon felt less like I was talking to the whole room.
Some kids had met Mormons before, though, so we bounced back and forth about having our own planets and not using technology on Holy Days and visiting the Garden of Eden in Missouri and Woody Allen and South Park Musicals and pogroms and Jell-O and gefilte fish and Pioneers and how, hey, both orthodox kids and recently returned missionaries don’t know how to deal with the opposite sex! What I learned from this conversation is that every religion is weird and externally irrational. But, having a personal relationship with my Creator is something I wouldn’t trade for anything. Even being sorta normal. This is how I imagine Trekkies feel.
Also, Jews sing at and pound their fists on the table! Where’d we Christians go wrong with misplaced reverence?
Okay, okay, okay, so I was really excited about day services. I worked through them on Day 1, but Day 2, I got in super early so I’d be able to take off for the Shofar. Man, Rosh Hashanah day services are nearly Mormon-length (3 hours), but minus any breaks. Basically, the chazzan (cantor) is singing prayers the whole time, sometimes aloud with us joining him, and sometimes to quietly. When the chazzan is praying silently, Rabbi Yitzi would squeeze in stories. But with all the necessary prayers, it took like an hour and a half for him to get out a story that’d take about 5 minutes without interruption. But in the end it was a great story! Also, occasionally, he’d sound the shofar (ram’s horn). Also interesting: the mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah isn’t to blow it but to hear it. One HUNDRED TIMES! That takes a while.
Also, my favorite things about Rosh Hashanah is the bowing. So, apparently back in temple days, Jews would go bowing in the temple, all the way to the ground, every day. But, since early Judaism was so temple-centric, Judaism since the destruction of the second temple of Solomon has had to adapt a lot. Anyway, the bowing is pretty much gone nowadays. EXCEPT on Rosh Hashanah, which is such a holy day that it’s almost like being in the temple. So we got down on all fours and bowed our heads to the ground to God. Bowing jives with me because of its implication of absolute vulnerability and obeisance. And, since Rosh Hashanah is when you’re supposed to be thinking all about what you’ve done this year, and God is writing in his book everything that he plans to do with us over the next year, it seemed fitting. He’s making the plan, and we’re sort of responding, Hey, I’ll take it. Gladly. Thanks for creating me!
Stay Tuned for: Yom Kippur!