Rituals (or Goodbye to all that)

We sat around our dining room table in mid-August. Summer was ending. Our younger son would start 11th grade in a day or two, his first time back in a classroom since the early spring of 9th grade. A few days later his brother would head back to college for his junior year in person.

Before we eat, I said, I want to do something. Four half-melted candles, a hodge-podge of what I could find in the kitchen drawer, stood up in the center of the table, anchored to the bottom of a glass jar by their own melted wax. Next to that, the last four matches of a box. I thought that each of us could light a candle and say something, whatever you want, maybe a wish or hope for the new year. Anything.

I needed this. I needed to pause and acknowledge that we had been through something extraordinary these past 17 or so months. I needed to mark the end of one phase before we rushed headlong into the next without a breath. I needed to call it out for what it was – an aberration, a valley, a trial – in order to face and welcome the “new normal” if not the grand “Woo Hoo, It’s Over!” we all wanted.

I expected eye rolls, but they did not come.

So I lit my candle and told my boys I was proud of how they had weathered this strange and unprecedented challenge, isolated from friends and the rituals of high school and college life, and that they had shown remarkable resilience and good humor, as well as grief and mourning. We went around the table and each took a turn, match-lighting glitches and all. It do not know that it changed anything measureable, but it did give us a moment to take a step back and honor what we had been through.

The instinct to mark time is a hallmark of being human. “One of the most important features of rituals is that they do not only mark time; they create time. By defining beginnings and ends to developmental or social phases, rituals structure our social worlds and how we understand time, relationships, and change.” – Rebecca J. Lester, Ph.D

As Jews, every Friday evening we are invited (I guess “commanded” would be a more traditional way to go) to light Shabbat candles to separate the work and school week from a time to renew, rest, and recharge. (Unexpected bonus: during the pandemic, having such rituals helped keep track of what day of the week it was.)

Tonight we mark the beginning of a new Jewish year. Some of our “normal” rituals – gathering together, getting dressed up (i.e. out of sweatpants), driving to our synagogue or the larger hall rented to accommodate the large crowds who show up this time a year — are still not back. Instead we will meet our synagogue community outside in a park. (Still better than last year, when the park was shut down and empty of the sounds that animate it, the human energies filling and colliding, reducing it to a plot of sand, grass, metal, bricks. It is the people who make it a park.)

Apart from the novel location, the practicing of other rituals will ground us — the prayers themselves and the fact that we know to gather at all. Rituals are meant to be done in community. “Rituals anchor community in the body. We physically feel the community.” – Byung-Chul Han.

One ritual of the Jewish High holidays that I love because it involves being in nature and letting go of regrets is Tashlikh. We will gather at the beach and throw bread crumbs or birdseed into the sea, to symbolically cast our “sins” into the ocean. I will cast away my sky-high fear. I will cast away washing my groceries when I come home from the market. I will cast away telling my teenager and 20-year-old to wash their hands every time they come home. I will cast away the grief of seeing caution tape on the monkey bars. I will cast away the anguish for all that was missed or lost in the past year and a half. Harder, though just as necessary, I will cast away the silver lining of having my kids home, the false-comfort of thinking I can protect them, and try to adjust to their being out in the world where they belong. I will cast away the clenching and shrinking we needed to practice, and try to open to what will be born in the year to come.

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.