When my mind circles back to Rosh Hashanah past, I see a chubby little girl in frilly dress and ruffled anklets, sitting primly with my sisters in the back seat of my parents’ Chevy. We’re on the way to grandma’s, our stomachs grumbling during the long drive from suburban New Jersey to the Bronx, shortened only with the prospect of golden chicken soup swimming with delicate strands of lokshn, mouth watering brisket and potato kugel, toothsome apple strudel and honey cake, dense and dark and studded with raisins. And while the memories are as vivid, and enduring, as the delectable mouthfuls, they are most likely the products of just a few short years of my childhood, perhaps just a handful or more of holiday meals around my grandparents’ seemingly grand table, napped in holiday white, yet they remain forever inscribed in my past. So memory does its work.
Time, of course, passes, as we grow and our lives change, as my grandparents aged, and my parents progressed, and holidays moved from my grandma and grandpa’s cramped apartment to my parents’ suburban home, and then to mine, even more than 2000 miles away. Yet those early memories still reside deep inside me, still return each year as I ready for the holidays, still gently pulling me back as I move forward.
They remind of the long arc of history with both its amazing serendipity and sometimes agonizing randomness. They remind of the fortitude and good fortune of my grandparents, as they left behind the hard yet familiar life of the Eastern European shtetl and traveled thousands of miles over the sea to America, of their struggle to make their way as strangers in a new land, of how they prided themselves in the bettered lives of their children and grandchildren even as they lamented the weakened ties to the past as they struggled to become Americans, to make the new country home.
But of course, they were lucky, leaving the pogroms and poverty behind two decades or more before the madness that gripped Europe as the Nazis embarked on their campaign to eradicate Jews and Jewish life, and leaving those left behind with no way out as the trains ran daily to the East and the ovens roared.
So, home, leaving home, making a home, being at home, are intrinsic threads of the Jewish story, especially resonant this time of the year. The enduring cycle of exile and return, and yet, the sacred obligation always to remember the stranger who once was us, and the sacred trust to carry that past forward with us. And so, especially this year, as the holidays approach, and the scent of my grandma’s chicken soup fills my kitchen, I am overcome by the images of the thousands of desperate refugees fleeing Syria, on foot or by rail, by truck or by sea, of walls erected to keep the desperate out, of craven political responses to staunch the flow, and I think again of home. Home lost, destroyed by war, riven by ethnic strife, ravaged by religious hatred, and the deep human need, the yearning for safety, for security, for home found.
And so as the shofar calls to us this year, with the familiar pattern of short and long, waking us up with the immediacy of the staccato and exhorting us to action with the final extraordinarily long and plaintive tekiah gedolah, I pray we can as a people, as a nation, respond to the plight of those in flight with humanity, empathy and compassion.
And that memory will do its work.