I suppose there are Jews who automatically know what year it is, Hebraically, all the year round, without checking.
But I am not one of those Jews. I'd guess most aren't. The year is one of those things that slips through our fingers. It could be 5345 or 5825 and I wouldn't notice the difference—the "5" sticks in mind: I don't think somebody could get away with "Happy 6934!" I'd sense something out-of-place.
Though this time of year, I do know, because I check, so I don't get it wrong in print: 5775. Cool, it's a palindrome numeral, same forward and backward. That's got to be lucky. Only one in our lifetimes.
That's 5,775 years since the creation of the universe, by the way, though again, neither I nor anybody I know actually believes that. We take it with a wink. Shame other faiths couldn't master the "Wear the less factual parts of your faith lightly" skill that Jews often have down pat: they'd save a lot of time wasted trying to dress their long-held myth up as science and hoping people buy it (though give them credit: they succeed, amazingly. If I tried to get the state of Texas to put The Book of Life in their literature textbooks, I'd probably not have half the success that Creationists do).
Rosh Hashana is when Jews are inscribed into The Book of Life by God Almighty— nonsense, of course, but I don't want to be a killjoy and draw too much attention to that, beyond pointing out that it's a belief held so casually that it's aired once a year and never referred to again. If a Jewish person gets really sick in July, they don't say, "I know I'm going to be okay —I was inscribed in the Book of Life last September."
We had a special dinner, with round raisin challah, for a sweet year, lit candles and said prayers. Piffle, of course, but familiar piffle. Nonsense we've been saying forever. No need to harp on that either, no need to upset people. All religions are pails of hooey — the rituals, that is, I'm not suggesting that religions don't do good, in between the fairytales and various tics and rhetorical spasms of symbolism. But for some reason people get insulted if you don't meet their credulous twaddle with at least a polite silence, which is also unfair. I wish upon stars as a matter of habit—I did tonight, after synagogue—but I'm not going to get into an argument with you about it about its efficacy, or feel disrespected, if you don't wish upon stars along with me.
We trotted off to synagogue—my wife and I did, anyway. The 17-year-old refused, and I couldn't quite see forcing him: sort of contradicts the whole idea. Compulsory spiritualism though again, much of the world seems keen on that. Teens are supposed to rebel. God designed them that way, and who am I to go against His Mysterious Will?
We went to Shir Hadash, a Reconstructionist synagogue, which we attended for a dozen years before taking a step away, after the boys' bar mitzvahs, in the traditional cigarette break from the faith. Though now we seem to be tiptoeing back because, really, you have to pass the time somehow. Reconstructionism might be unfamiliar to you. I consider it "Judaism as if you meant it." More singing, more joy, certainly more than the arid fields of Reform Judaism I tilled as a youth, with, which I finally decided is Conservative Judaism stripped down for those who feel compelled to show up somewhere and utter some Hebrew. A sort of Cliff Notes Judaism.
"We don't see Judaism as a spectator sport," said Fred Andes, a board member at the synagogue, summing up Reconstructionism nicely. If you're going to do it, do it, and do it like you mean it.
I went to services to accompany my wife—had she wanted to go bowling, I'd have been good for that, too. But I was sincerely interested in what Shir Hadash's rabbi, Eitan Weiner-Kaplow, would have to say at this delicate moment in Jewish contemporary life. With the war in Gaza still smoldering on the world's consciousness, and anti-Semitism on the rise, while Jews argue heatedly about our stance on Israel, I would not want to be a rabbi sitting in my study, pursing my lips over my keyboard and wondering what to tell the thinning ranks for the faithful. How would he navigate the lion's den?
Rabbi Eitan spoke of Jews tendency to complain, to "kvetch" and how we actually have little to complain about, and it's better to focus on being happy. "We're supposed to be happy, not kvetching," he said.
Can't argue that. Sometimes the best way to address something is to let it be. Plus there was a second sermon, which might sound excessive to those used to dull sermons, but these were interesting; more interesting, to me, than the prayers.
Fred Andes, in his speech, did gingerly approach world events.
"I hear from people who are very scared about things in the world," he said. "What can we do about that?"
He laid out a path sure not to ruffle too many feathers.
"All we can do is to resolve for each of us to try to make the world better, a little bit," he said. "Think about these issues. That's the essence of the holiday."
Maybe I was in the holiday spirit, seeing familiar faces, singing the old songs. But that made sense too; it was refreshing not to have somebody pointedly explain exactly what the problem is and what, in his or her opinion, should be done about it, immediately. We are allowed to reflect, to consider—we might as well; it isn't as if the people causing the problems in the world are eagerly awaiting our instructions before proceeding with their folly. Sometimes we pretend that the more we fight and argue with each other, the quicker our problems will be solved, and it doesn't work like that. Anyway, Happy 5775...at least it'll be an easy one remember. Have a happy one, since none of us will be around in 5885.
"Subtle" is not a word I associate much with religious practice. But Shir Hadash did something for their daytime Rosh Hashana service on Thursday that I admired for just that reason. The Torah portion for today is Hagar, Abraham's handmaiden, being send out into the wilderness with their son, Ishmael, to make way for Isaac, who shows up unexpectedly, a child of Sarah's old age. He gets the birthright, they get to go die in the desert. Who said life was fair?
While Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow was reading and commenting on the portion, a member of the congregation, dressed as Hagar, showed up, and they had an ongoing dialogue.
She bemoaned being kicked out, through no fault of her own.
"And now I'm the foreigner, 'Hagar the Egyptian,'" she said, recounting how she had dwelled in Abraham's house for years. It led the rabbi toward discussing how people are considered.
"People who are called names, or are nameless, are invisible," he said. At one point he asked the congregation for suggestions for Hagar, what she should do now, having been expelled from the land. I almost raised my hand and said, "Build your country with the borders that you've got," but nobody else brought up the subject so roiling the Jewish world, and I didn't want to be the one to do it.
With congregations so touchy on the subject of Israel, and Gaza, and the Palestinians, these words were never used. But the message—at least to me—was plain.
"They have names, they have lives," Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow said, of unknown people generally. "Think of a group of people being made anonymous in the public eye. Practice the mitzvah of considering bringing them to mind on a daily basis or getting to know them. See each person as created in the image of God, each person with a value and a worth and a story."
It could easily have been seen as a homily on the need to be friendly to the bank teller, and I'm sure many congregants felt that way. But there was a larger message, at least to me, and I thought it was very cleverly done, timely and important.