This past weekend was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In over four decades, this is only the second time I’ve been away from home at this time of year. The first was six years ago. We’d gotten married in late August and took off for an around the world honeymoon, only to find ourselves celebrating the New Year in Berlin, Germany. This time, we’d taken off to escape winter in New York last December, and haven’t yet left San Diego. We found ourselves in this southern California city to ring in the New Year. Although short in length, these two experiences taught me endless lessons.
Berlin was a surprisingly spectacular place to be for the holiday. We found shops stocking food ‘necessities’ and managed to have, what I called, ‘Rosh Hashanah in a bag’. There was a place to go to be around others doing exactly the same thing and foods that have been associated with the holiday for years. The synagogue was filled with locals and travelers all wanting to be part of a greater community at this time of year. It’s an experience that stands out in my travel memory, but not solely for its religious nature. Welcoming strangers became family for a time. Those searching for a piece of ‘home’ found it. People were fed and greeted with kindness.
I’d been away for other holidays before. I’ve picked up matzoh in Bangkok and have travelled with that same unleavened bread to places like India, Hong Kong, and South America. But, this was the first time I had to find my own way for this particular holiday. It was the first time I didn’t have the comforts of home on this special occasion with access to the same synagogue I’d attended all my life. I could have been sad, and there certainly were moments of weirdness, but, I chose to see it as a challenge. I chose to be on that whirlwind adventure and it was my responsibility to try to make the holiday what I wanted or ‘needed’. It was up to me. That was different.
This time, we chose to be on the west coast. Cooking, cleaning, attending services or not; all of those things were up to us. Sounds strange, I know, that in life’s fourth decade, this is the first time to experience all of these things, but before, it was always easy. Parent’s house, same temple, sitting with our ‘chosen’ family for services and sharing dessert with the same friends for decades….there are some traditions that are truly wonderful and it’s not easy to have to change them (whether it’s your choice or not). There’s that comfort zone sneaking up on me again.
Not only did we manage, we thrived. The foods that said ‘holiday’ to me were on the table. Friends found the time to relate their New Year’s wishes and even our ‘chosen’ temple family sent their kindness across the miles. We found what worked and what didn’t, what we ‘needed’ and what we only thought we did and a way to make the new that little bit familiar, and that little bit comfortable. And when I thought I would miss out on a sermon, the Rabbi at a new temple provided one. He too was welcoming and gracious, learned and kind, community-minded and real and offered a perspective that seems to go hand in hand with the choices we’ve been making these past few months. Oddly enough…his sermon was about ‘nothing’. The ‘nothing’ that brought Seinfeld to fame and the ‘nothing’ described when talking to a friend about what he/she may have missed. He even found a way to remind me of my dad, when he mentioned his friends ‘who play a game about nothing…they call it golf’. I smiled.
He engaged with his audience, showed compassion throughout his whole sermon and ended with the hopes that people would find a way to add a bit more ‘nothingness’ into their world. He suggested, we don’t always need a reason and more often than not, doing something for no reason at all is the best reason. He got to me. His high holiday sermon resonated with much of the way I’ve chosen life recently. A crazy straw in a drink, a morning hike, an afternoon at the beach, ice cream for dinner…all for no reason at all. It’s when the question of ‘why’ is asked or someone feels the ‘need’ to search for that ‘reason’ that the beauty of the nothingness is soured. He’s right, we could all do with a bit more ‘nothingness’ in our lives for no reason at all.
Regardless, it wasn’t one particular thing – the sermon, or the new temple, the fact that we cooked or found a new place to purchase challah…it was all of it. Those life lessons sneak up on you when you least expect it. I’m not sure I even knew that I was searching for something. Perhaps it was more ‘nothingness’, or a familiarity. Perhaps it was that community spirit or that warmhearted smile. Perhaps it was another unknown and the ability to tackle it. Either way, with or without a specific search, I found something. Amidst welcoming strangers, familiar texts, and the reinforcement of my strong belief in the need for ‘nothingness’, there was a lesson. This time it came wrapped in challah with a side of gefilte fish.