A couple of years ago, there was a parodic caricature of an elderly gent sending up the seemingly endless curiosity of how people spent Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “What are you doing first night? Where are you second night? What are you doing to break the fast? Who gives a …”. I laughed when I first saw it. Because as with most comedy, it works when it’s true. And it is true. Everyone wants to know what everyone else is doing. But does anyone care? Or did they? And even if your relationship with Judaism is having a smoked salmon bagel or watching a Mel Brooks film, or reading Philip Roth, there is something about the High Holy Days which calls to people to do something to mark the occasion.
But what about this year? The fact that synagogues are open in the UK is cause for celebration. But it’s not the same as it was. There is a comfortable familiarity in our rituals. And it’s not nostalgia, but rather it’s how we embrace our Judaism: together, as a community. Whether with family, friends, or the person who you don’t see from literally one year to the next. But in shul on Rosh Hashanah you always share the same greeting. Or maybe it’s the melodies, as mellifluous as the honey that soaks the challah. Scents of fragrant fruits, the prevalence of white: shirt, kippah and tablecloth. And of course, the people. The family, the friends.
There is a rhythm of regularity in Judaism: our lives are intertwined with seasons. The optimism of a warm spring day reflects the joy of Pesach; the chill September air marks the start of penitential prayer and the impending Days of Awe; the rain in October leaves nobody in any doubt that it must surely be Succot. But now, in this era of pandemic, the familiar is unfamiliar. Or rather, it is in a dystopian form. Shuls are open – but you can’t sing. You can go. But you have to book in advance. You can pray – but you must wear a mask.
Not everyone will go. Some will remain at home. Some cannot attend. Others will have their own services. And some won’t really care. Certainly about synagogue. But maybe they will care about something else which is quintessentially pertinent to the Days of Awe. To be with our families at all at the moment is a blessing.
But to be part of a wider community is also surely what Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are about: we enter the Days of Judgment together as a people and we leave together as a people. In one of the most famous parts of the liturgy, G-d looks at us both as individuals and as a shepherd tending His flock. That is the duality of Judaism. And this year will be different: it will be a more solitary, individual experience. Not all families can be together. So perhaps when we pray for a sweet new year, we will do so, yearning for the days of packed synagogues with song and prayer from all of us, in one voice which can reach the heights of Heaven.