Lessons from My First Rosh Hashanah

by Vicki Garlock on September 24, 2014

Rosh Hashanah

A few symbols of Rosh Hashanah: apples, honey, and a shofar

Rosh Hashanah begins this evening at sundown. Commonly known as the Jewish New Year, it’s a two-day holiday that commemorates God’s creation of the world. Last year, I attended the first day services at the Chabad House, our Orthodox Jewish community here in Asheville. As a testament to the idea that “we create our own sacred spaces,” Rabbi Shaya Susskind and his wife, Chana, have created a thriving faith community in a space that physically sits between a tattoo parlor and a smoke shop. (I’m not exaggerating.) It was my first Jewish High Holy Day celebration, so I was completely awed by everything I experienced. How ironic, then, that the entire event culminated with an apology note – written by me to the Rabbi.

Thanks to a news article in our local paper about the upcoming Jewish holidays, I knew I needed a ticket to attend. Ticketed events are completely unheard of in the Christian tradition. No church would ever require a ticket for a Christmas Eve or Easter service, so I was quite proud of my burgeoning interfaith acumen. I confidently picked up the phone, called the Chabad House, and asked if I could have a ticket. The administrative assistant kindly told me I didn’t need a ticket for their service; my phone call would count as a reservation. She suggested that I arrive around 11AM.

In talking with my Jewish friends after the fact, I discovered that my newspaper knowledge was rather limited. First, the practice of allowing people to walk in the door with just a reservation is somewhat unusual in the Jewish tradition. The Chabad House is rather progressive in that sense. Second, I probably should have made a significant donation in return for that reservation. Each religious tradition has its own methods for raising revenue. In the case of the Christian and Jewish traditions, both have some version of membership where regular worshippers pay an annual fee or make an annual pledge as part of being a member of the congregation. Beyond that, Christians pass the offering plate any reasonable chance they get. In the Jewish tradition, they never pass an offering plate; however, they do make money by selling tickets for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If they had passed the offering plate, I probably would have thrown about $10 in there. In actuality, tickets for these holidays usually go for more like $150-$200, so a donation of $10 would have turned heads only for being incredibly low. We’ll call that Interfaith Lesson #1.

My father-in-law happened to be visiting from out of town, so I invited him to accompany me. We didn’t want to be late for the 11AM start time, so we got there early – around 10:45. Oddly, the service was already well under way. I wasn’t sure how I had gotten the time so mixed up in my head, but I was in no position to sort it out at that moment. Instead, I needed to figure out where I was supposed to sit. In the Orthodox tradition, men sit on one side of the room and women on the other, so my father-in-law and I separated from one another as I began to get my bearings. A woman sitting next to me found a book (called a mahzor) for me. It was about the size of a hymnal and said Rosh Hashanah on the front cover (which is really the back cover to readers of English). She pointed out what page they were on. Since most of the text was in both Hebrew and English, it was pretty easy to follow along.

As I settled in, I began to absorb the beauty presenting itself all around me. The gold trim on the large 3-ft. high scroll, shimmered as it was opened to the correct passage of the Torah. The hazan (called a cantor in English) chanted line after line of Hebrew text in an effortless and seemingly flawless manner. It would have been impressive no matter what, but he appeared to be in his mid-twenties, which made it even more remarkable to me. Other men from the congregation also rose from their chairs, made their way to the altar, and read short portions of the Torah. When they returned to their seats, fellow worshipers congratulated them on a job well done. The woman seated next to me explained that because the vowels are not shown in written Hebrew, it’s extremely difficult to read. Her husband had diligently practiced what he read, almost to the point of memorizing it.

I began to breathe deeply with the rise and fall of the Hebrew language. Its timeless intonations vibrated deep within my bones and resonated with the hopes and sorrows of generation after generation of Jewish people. As the celebration proceeded, I let the comfort of the rituals wash over me. The scripture readings for the first day of Rosh Hashanah include Isaac’s birth to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac’s circumcision, and the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael from the household. These stories are also quite familiar to Christians, and I loved hearing the rabbi’s commentary on it. Like a good minister preaching a relevant sermon, the rabbi offered ways in which this ancient tale is applicable to our lives today. He talked about family dynamics, the Holocaust, and living in faith.

The rabbi also blew the shofar on several occasions. Although the shofar is blown a few other times during the Jewish liturgical year, it is primarily associated with Rosh Hashanah, also sometimes referred to as Yom Teruah, the day of the shofar blast. The shofar, traditionally made from a ram’s horn, is a simple musical instrument. Some pitch control can occur using the position of the mouth, but most of the variation comes from blasts that differ in length. Many synagogues follow the tradition of blowing the shofar 100 times. We have a shofar here in the Nurture Program at Jubilee! church that both the grown-ups and the kids can try, but we are clearly novices. Until that day, I had seen only You Tube rabbis blowing the shofar with any sort of skill or expertise. The in-person rendering was simply extraordinary.

Other aspects of the service were a bit more surprising, and once again, I cursed my limited newspaper-based knowledge. If you come from a Christian tradition, you might assume, without really thinking about it, that everyone in the building was totally focused on the liturgy. This was not at all the case. There were women in the kitchen preparing the luncheon (certain to include apples, honey, and loaves of challah), and the women’s side was literally bustling with activity. Moms talked to one another, congregants introduced themselves to me, kids came and went according to their interest level, and grown-ups got up to use the bathroom. At one point, the mail-lady from the U.S. postal service showed up at one of the entrance doors with a handful of mail!

And still, the service continued. And continued. And continued. I finally whispered to the woman next to me, “How long does this last?” She waved her hand, as if to say, “Who knows.” And that’s when I began to realize that this Rosh Hashanah thing was taking forever. I had been sitting there for over 2 hours! White Christians celebrate Easter in 60 minutes, 75 minutes at the most. What was going on here? I wasn’t even sure when they had started – certainly before 10:45. And clearly, I hadn’t eaten enough breakfast because I was starving. When were we going to eat those apples with honey anyway?! I could see the food on the table in the next room, but no one was eating yet – not even the kids. We were clearly making progress in the mahzor, but it seemed the entire prayer book was just for Rosh Hashanah. I began counting pages, and there appeared to be about 100 pages still remaining! I was getting really antsy, but my father-in-law was on the other side of the room out of my sight. I was starting to feel trapped. When he got up to go to the bathroom, I was finally able to catch his eye. I made a “let’s get out of here” motion with my head. He nodded. And we left. It was a little after 1PM. We’ll call that Interfaith Lesson #2.

I was so disappointed in myself. Everyone there had been so welcoming to me – from the moment I called to ask if I could attend. The service was beautiful, interesting, and enlightening. The families seemed so happy to be there, together, in community. And the rabbi, like all great ritual leaders, was commanding yet loving, confident yet humble. As it turned out, he was also very understanding. I met with him many weeks later. He had instructed his administrative assistant to tell novice attendees to arrive at 11AM instead of the true 9:30AM start time because the service ends around 1:30PM, and most new-comers cannot last that long. He was very sympathetic as I expressed my regret, and he assured me that I was still welcome at any of their services any time.

I am starting to suspect that it’s not just new-comers to the Jewish tradition who struggle. Many congregation members arrived well after I did (although none of them left early), and I’ve seen various blog posts on how best to handle children (and non-Jewish spouses) during these lengthy holiday observances. I also noticed that some synagogues post specific start times for different portions of the service so participants can decide exactly when to arrive. Despite all of that, I still felt like a bit of a failure. I felt so honored to be there, but I was simply physically and spiritually unprepared. And that’s what I wrote to the rabbi in my apology e-mail the next day.

A year has passed, and I’ve learned a lot – both about the Jewish Holy Days and about interfaith interactions more generally. I better understand the ticket-buying/reservation-donation systems of our local Jewish congregations, and I have a better sense of what to expect in terms of service length. I will be attending various High Holy Day services at all three synagogues (Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed) in Asheville this year — for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. I feel like I’m better prepared, but I guess that remains to be seen. I will certainly eat a bigger breakfast.

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