Rosh Hashana… beyond the cooking marathon

As I write this, it is 11:45pm, the night before Rosh Hashana. My kitchen is a wreck, mixing bowls splattered with various batters, sugar spilled on the floor and several foods in the process of being made (I write this in the few spare moments I have as I wait for water to boil and chickens to come out of the oven). As I observe the chaotic scene (and hope my husband doesn’t emerge from his office and faint at the catastrophic sight), I smile as I recall this morning’s conversation with my new baby-sitter who never met a Jew before signing on to baby-sit our ten month old baby.

I was nearly out the door, running to get to work on time and drop my three older children off at school (which is actually where I work), when I felt the need to apologize for the mess (which to be honest, isn’t that foreign in the busy household of a rabbi and school administrator and home of four children) which was certainly worse than usual. I explained to her that we had a holiday coming up and trying to figure out how to exactly put into words the preparations I had been undergoing night after night, I explained that cooking for Rosh Hashana is sort of like cooking for Thanksgiving. But two Thanksgiving meals a day. For three days in a row. And when I saw the look of horror on her face, I reassured her, “No worries. It’s not a big deal. There will be another three day holiday in two weeks from now, and then another a week later. But then that’s it for a while.” (Until Passover. Ha!). Needless to say, I don’t think she will be converting to Judaism any time soon. And based on the way I described it, I can’t blame her for her reaction.

As a Jewish woman who has been observant since birth, I don’t usually question (although I admit that I sometimes complain about) the difficulties of making Yom Tov. For me, being observant has always been a given- and that comes with positives and negatives. The positive being that I tend to accept difficulties in religious observance unquestioningly, and the negative being that I don’t appreciate the positives as much as one who is newly observant (or someone observing from the outside).

But seeing my baby-sitter look at me with such shock made me think anew as I embarked on the twenty-minute drive to school. While I have never questioned my life as an observant woman, I have questioned how to explain that choice to others. We moved to Charleston to educate and inspire, in a community where observant Jews are far outnumbered by Jews who do not observe. And this is often a difficult challenge. How can I teach about the beauty of Judaism when sometimes, to be quite honest, Judaism can be difficult? How can I encourage people to learn more about Judaism when people are already juggling work, home life, children and leisure and aren’t always interested in adding something else to their very busy plates? If anyone gets that, I certainly do. There are times when I would like to add more prayer, chessed (acts of kindness) and learning to my life but after a busy day, I just can’t muster the energy to pull myself off the couch (and facebook).

And as I pondered these very thoughts, wondering if I could ever accomplish my mission of educating and inspiring, I suddenly tuned back in to my car and heard what my kids were singing at the top of their lungs as I (somehow) spaced out. They were singing a song from the Rosh Hashana prayers- one of my favorites, which they clearly learned from the many times I’ve played my Eitan Katz CD on the way to school. And I realized that many of the songs that I’ve taught them over the years, are from the davening of the High Holidays (most famously, “Maareh Kohen” which my oldest daughter sang at 16 months). I suppose the reason for that is that despite the stress involved in the preparation, the High Holidays are my favorite time of the year- and I want to share the love of this time with my children.

When I’m standing in shul on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, it is one of the few times a year that the whirlwind of life stands still and I feel that I am truly standing before G-d. There is no one to impress, there is no one around to whom I have to measure my words- it is me in my truest form, my most real self, standing before my Creator who knows me better than anyone. It is a time when I can close my eyes and be entirely honest with myself and admit my faults and know intuitively how to improve. It’s a time when I feel G-d’s hand on my shoulder giving me the strength and courage to make the changes in my life that will make me a better person and when I feel enabled to make those changes.

It is a time when the melodies and words of the prayers strike at my very core- the experience not falling in the same rote pattern as the daily prayers which I know so well that it is hard to concentrate on their meaning, but where the words have a sense of newness. And yet, with the newness, the words echo the faint familiarity of Rosh Hashanas of years past which bring back memories of prayers uttered, wishes I had for other new years- some which came true, some which did not.

And this sense of meaning, of realness in a world which sometimes seems anything but real is why I love my life as an observant Jew. Whereas when I was young, I would feel frustrated by the restrictions of Shabbos, at the ripe old age of 33, I find that I crave the moment when I light candles and peace descends on my home. I love the fact that whatever pressing items I have on my agenda come to a halt and can no longer percolate on my mind once Shabbos arrives because for 25 hours, there is absolutely nothing I can do about them. I love eating meals on Shabbos with my family, when cell phones are absent and we can just focus on each other. I love going to shul on Shabbos and laughing with our friends there at Kiddush, where we stay long after shul is over because we don’t have much else to do other than simply enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company. And the pleasure of a Shabbos nap… words cannot convey. Let’s just say that when I miss my Shabbos nap, I am a tired grouch for the rest of the week.

Religious observance adds structure to my life. It teaches me and my children that in life, we can’t always have what we want- a lesson that many children in this generation don’t understand- and a lesson that I think has been wonderful for their character development. But above all, it adds meaning. And sometimes in life, the best things come with a little hard work and some sweat and tears.

And so when I next see the look of sympathy on my baby-sitter’s face or the faces of those who sometimes comment that they can’t understand my observant life, I might invite them to look deeper. There are indeed fruits to the labor.

Wishing y’all a Shana Tova- a good year and may G-d answer all of our prayers for the good.

About the Author
Ariela Davis, a native New Yorker, is the Rebbetzin of Charleston, South Carolina’s historic Orthodox synagogue, Brith Shalom Beth Israel, and the Director of Judaics of Addlestone Hebrew Academy, Charleston’s Jewish day school. She is the wife of Rabbi Moshe Davis and the mother of four children.
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