A New “New Year” (aka Pandemic Rosh Hashana)

Yesterday I stepped into adulthood: I pre-ordered a round challah from the Gelson’s bakery. As I ordered on the phone, I lingered over the idea of ordering my favorite, one with sweet raisins dotting the soft, airy middle, but resisted and instead asked for plain, what my boys like best.

Of course, our older son won’t be having any challah with us. He is in Eugene, finally released from the confines of pandemic shutdown with his parents and brother, only to have to lock himself in with his roommates to avoid unbreathable air from nearby fires. We are now familiar with the government’s Air Quality Index. He texted me today: “70 air quality this morning!” Seventy is almost “healthy,” down from an off-the-scale high of 496! I reply, “Woot woot! Just in time for the freakin new year…things are looking up!”

Such promising news prompts me to search Yelp for take-out/delivery brisket near him, hoping to delight him with a favorite taste of the Jewish new year. The best I can find is a food truck, and I direct him to its location. I say, take your friends, my treat. Only later does he ask me when is Rosh Hashana, not realizing that my offer relates to it beginning today. Who can blame him? Does anyone really know what day or month it is?

His younger brother, adjusting to life as the only child home — which means home all the time with his parents — asks if he can go to his friend’s house tonight to hang out in the backyard.

I pause to think. Friends are important. Especially in this remote year. Then, to make his case, he says, “I’m just not religious.”

He knows that this assertion will be met with a lecture, or what I think of as parental wisdom. I say, “You don’t have to believe in God. It’s about the ritual, and the communal self-reflection, and asking yourself what kind of a world you would like to live in, and how can we help create that in the coming year.”

I know this must sound like “mwa mwa mwa mwa,” but I also know this: This child is a close listener. He misses nothing. I have sighed at my desk across the long hall that separates where I do my work from where he is doing virtual school, and his voice has returned to me with a gentle, “Mom? Are you okay?” He hears what I am telling him. I know it sticks.

“Sure, you can be with friends tonight.” But I issue an asterisk: in non-pandemic years you will have dinner with your family on Rosh Hashanah. Also, I tell him I will send him with some apples and honey and, yes, some of the plain challah I’ve ordered, and to make sure he remembers the meaning of all this sweetness.

Before I run out to the bakery to pick up the challah, the doorbell rings with what I can only describe as a New Year’s miracle: a friend bearing a Rosh Hashanah gift bag — yellow tulips, sweet apples, a jar of honey, and a challah fresh-baked from her oven. She is a talented chef and hostess, and I know she feels the loss of being able to gather loved ones around her table and nurture and nourish them. I see how she created a new outlet to express her love, and that we are her lucky recipients.

Yes, we helped ourselves to a hunk of the plain challah, though I’ve tried to disguise here!
I mentioned it was fresh out of the oven, didn’t I?

Two challahs; it’s as if abundance multiplies itself! As I head to the store I wonder if there’s anyone without? I call one friend to see if she’s in need. Nope, challah abundance everywhere.

At the bakery I run into friends who are also there for challahs. The challah line is the only place we will gather in person this Rosh Hashanah.

I give my name to the bakery man, and as he searches for my plain challah — the very last one — I share with my friends how proud I was to have acted like my mother and mother-in-law rather than the juvenile I usually am in these matters. I had assumed everyone was more grown up than I, but it turns out I’m not the only late bloomer. One of them had not pre-ordered; she was stuck, unhappily, with raisins.

When the bakery man comes with my plain challah, we already know this was meant to be. The trade is made. He brings me her raisin challah that is so warm from the oven he advises me not to seal the bag yet. As I go to check out, Maria calls to say Happy New Year. Miracles multiply.

Both challahs sit side by side on the kitchen counter now, tempting me. In a little while, we will send our son off to his friend’s house with some of the tastes he loves, symbols of rituals that he may come around to some later day or year. Christopher and I will head to my parents’ house, and along with my sister and niece, we will sit outside on either end of a table recently wiped of ash, and taste the sweetness of choosing to be together, of everyone getting a little something they wanted, and pray for a new year with the healing and repair the world so deserves.

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