Reflections on Celebrating the High Holidays in the U.S. and Israel
The Jewish High Holiday season has just passed, but it has been an unusual one for us. “We are celebrating Rosh Hashanah like Israelis, not Americans,” I told my oldest grandson, Leo. “See if you can figure out what I mean.”
Our family met for the holiday in a rented home on Lake Michigan, which is between Detroit, our hometown, and St Louis, where our eldest son and family reside. Before Covid, my son, Etai, his wife, Caroline, and children (now numbering four) would drive to us to celebrate the holidays. We attended synagogue services at the Downtown Synagogue, where Oren, our younger son, Etai’s brother, was an active board member. The Downtown Synagogue is the only free-standing synagogue in Detroit. I am so proud that Oren was instrumental in its revival, helping to create a now-thriving institution.
Our family traditions continued on the holiday. We said prayers, dipped apples & challah in honey, reflected on the year gone by, and articulated wishes for the coming year. Tashlich, a family tradition, took place on the riverbanks in South Haven, Michigan. Instead of the large gathering of family and friends at the lake next to my sister Carol’s home, it was just us, our nuclear family. We cast away our sins. Then, Oren blew his exceptionally long shofar which we bought him in Jerusalem on his bar mitzvah visit. His Tekiah Gedolah was the longest, most spiritual we had ever heard him blow. Surely, our thoughts, wishes, and prayers were heaven-bound.
Yom Kippur was also marked outside of the synagogue walls. My husband Mickey׳s sister and brother-in-law from Israel were in the United States visiting. Oren told us, “Yom Kippur comes every year, Haya and Amir do not.” So, Mickey and I flew to meet them in Maine. The meal before Kol Nidre took place in a restaurant in Bar Harbor. We concluded Yom Kippur on a picnic bench in Arcadia National Park. We munched on the honey cake that Haya baked in Israel and brought with her. I blew the small child’s shofar that she also brought.
Having spent the high holidays in Israel with Mickey’s secular family, I was at first startled, and then grew to appreciate the very different traditions than those I was accustomed to and grew up with. The fall holidays marked many days off work and school in Israel. Living in Israel, my family members were surrounded by the holidays. It was part of their culture, reflected in the media and advertisements, as well as taught in schools.
Like Christmas here, the holidays could be felt all around you. The fall holidays, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, then Sukkot, were an opportunity for Israelis to vacation. Vacation and travel, they did! To the beach, local hotels, camping, or a big trip out of the county. The outflux of Israelis fill the airport before the holiday season. If they were in the country for Yom Kippur, my family fasted at home until they heard the shofar blast in the neighborhood synagogue.
Yom Kippur, however, is the children’s special day in Israel. There are no cars or buses on the roads. All restaurants and entertainment venues are closed. With no traffic on the streets, pedestrians and kids on bicycles pour onto the streets. The roads were theirs to explore and conquer in the evening and on the next day until the shofar sounded. This is one special day, youngsters could take to the streets, freely exploring with friends. It is long-awaited and the highlight of the year.
“Did you figure out what I meant?” I asked Leo later in the day. “No, Savta, tell me.” “We are not in synagogue. We are at a vacation spot together, like our family in Israel does on Rosh Hashanah. Like our Israeli relatives, we have traveled and are enjoying a vacation house together, marking the holiday outside of synagogue walls, not what we usually do in America. Growing up, I insisted that your abba and Uncle Oren come to synagogue on the high holidays. I didn’t care if they prayed or just hung out with their friends. I told them, ’The only way you’ll know it is this Jewish holiday in America is being at synagogue.’” “Well, Savta, we are Israeli Americans so we can do both. We certainly are having a fun holiday,” Leo concluded.
Hadassah stands for Jewish values and traditions. Hadassah also stands up for women’s empowerment and leadership, and therefore strongly supports the role of Jewish woman as keepers of the flame of Jewish values, traditions and beliefs. I am proud to be a Life Member of a national organization with such a noble purpose.