I have a little confession to make – I have always wished I could have been Jewish. No, that is not like this Mets fan saying that he wished to be a Yankees fan – that indeed would be sacrilege, but I have always been fascinated by Jewish traditions and customs. The thing I have always found most intriguing is the faith’s connection to the earth and sky. That natural component has always seemed to me to be inherently linked to something “other,” whether that was God or the universe.
I first began being fascinated with all things Jewish in Catholic school. Since more than half the Bible that we studied was the Old Testament, we learned a great deal about the way Jewish people lived and worshipped before Jesus even came into the story. What really captured my attention was the way Jews marked the Sabbath on Friday evenings. It had nothing to do with an exact time – they didn’t do this every Friday at 6 o’clock; instead, they lit their candles when the sun went down. In my young mind this made complete sense but also made me tingle with excitement because the celestial connection felt like it carried more weight.
When I learned about more Jewish traditions over the years, my fascination continued. I recall one year – and I’m thinking it was in second or third grade – our teacher allowed us to participate in a Seder. There was something that felt so surreal about this, with blood marking the classroom door (ketchup was used), the cup waiting for Elijah, and the “wine” that still seems like the most delicious grape juice I ever tasted. And, when we got to the questions, especially “Why is this night different from all other nights,” I felt like an angel would soon be swooping down the school hallway and sparing our room from something terrible happening elsewhere.
Now as an adult I like to share my enthusiasm and excitement about the Jewish traditions with my children (who are being raised Catholic as I was). I explained how tonight at sundown it will be a “new year” for Jewish people (5774), and that this Jewish calendar has nothing to do with the one that is hanging in our kitchen.
This year Rosh Hashanah has come very early, but this is based on a lunar calendar that defies the Gregorian. The celestial nature of this practice still fascinates me. Many school districts here in New York, faced with the realities of the Jewish new year, have postponed the first day of school until next Monday (September 9). Here we see the celestial having an effect on the secular in a rather powerful and amazing way.
My daughter, who attends Catholic school, says “It’s not fair” regarding her public school friends having this extra week of summer vacation while she is in school, but I explained that this year another Jewish holiday (Hanukkah) will come much earlier for Jewish people (starting the night before Thanksgiving). Yes, the way it falls the children will be off from school anyway, but the Menorahs we usually see lit in windows will be darkened well before we start putting up Christmas lights this year. That seemed to get her thinking that in some strange way she was getting back these “lost” September days later this year.
The concept of marking holidays based on natural events (sundown, phases of the moon, etc.) is still very appealing to me. Some will call it old fashioned, but I like the notion that the Jewish calendar respects a higher authority (sort of like Hebrew National hotdogs?). Our secular modern calendar is remarkably static with everything happening based on numbers and not nature.
My daughter did bring up some good points. She noted that only the Fourth of July and Christmas (December 25) fall on the same day every year. She said that Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Mother’s Day never fall on the same date, but I countered that, while this is very true, it is not based on natural phenomenon but rather on rather secular reasoning. Mother’s Day is always the second Sunday of May; Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday of November, and so on.
No matter how I look it, I still appreciate the Jewish tradition of linking celebrations and traditions to the celestial rather than the secular. Perhaps it feels like a simpler and more realistic way to stipulate how to worship, and I especially like the thought of lighting candles just as people have done for the last 5774 years. It is not as much antiquated as it is more essential, reminding us of all our long ago ancestors living in caves and huddling around fires. They depended on fire for everything – light, cooking, heat, and safety.
Why should it be surprising that eventually that fire would be linked to worshipping the “one” whom they believed sent it to them in the first place? After all these years Jewish people still recognize this salient connection of God and light. Maybe the rest of us just need 3,761 years to catch up and embrace this concept.
So this evening, as the sun slips behind the edge of the earth, I will wish Happy New Year to all Jewish people (and those who wish they were). Shanah Tovah to one and all.
Photo credits: moon – NASA; rosh hashanah – ayedison.org; candles – chgs.umn.edu