Monday, October 2, 2023 -
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Ten measures of beauty, of fragility, of hope

It’s been a special prelude to Rosh Hashanah for me. A first since I had moved from Israel 16 years ago. There I was again, steeped in the approach to Rosh Hashanah in Jerusalem, imbibing the Days of Awe spirit that permeates the city.

Knowing Shabbat is over not by checking the clock — or even the sky for the sparkle of three stars — but because suddenly just beyond your window you hear a fellow Jew greeting another with Shavua Tov, Eliyahu ha-Navi Zachur la-Tov, “A good week, may Elijah the prophet be remembered for good.” And you hear another concurrent conversation concluding with rak b’simcha, “only in joy.”

Hearing the rousing staccato blasts of the shofar multiple times of day, be they randomly in the afternoon from the apartment I was staying at, or at the conclusion of the morning prayers, or even as I meandered downtown between shops or at the Machne Yehuda market — there it was, that long piercing siren-like blast, punctuated by the more urgent-sounding shorter blasts.

Sensing Selichot too, the Elul penitential poems and prayers, not only in the formal setting of the synagogue but as snippets sung or piped downtown on the streets. Certainly, at the Wailing Wail, there was a constancy of these emotionally audible and unselfconsciously expressed prayers.

Late one night on Jaffa Road, where a public grand piano sits for the public to enjoy its music as random people approach and tickle the ivories, belting out their favorite songs, the fun and light laughter shifted from popular contemporary songs such as “Shallow” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to the Selichot prayers. It takes a special place like the city of Jerusalem where shifting to songs of a religious nature spur the crowd to swell ever larger and sing even stronger.

It wasn’t just the specific Days of Awe like triggers that enveloped me and grounded me in that heightened pre-Rosh Hashanah state. It was the composite experience of Jerusalem’s day to day living.

When I passed a dusty construction site, instead of the more usual banners depicting a drawing of the future building, there were banners with Talmudic quotes such as “Ten measures of beauty descended into the world, Jerusalem received nine, and the rest of the world received one.” Banners like this, each with its own Jerusalem-focused quotation, wrapped around the entirety of the site, creating a unique mosaic or collage composed of inspirational excerpts from our tradition about Jerusalem. A kind of Jerusalem literacy for the passer by.

At the market, various vendors sport signs including biblical verses pertaining to their wares, or containing an expression of gratitude to G-d. A place specializing in frena — the super fluffy version of the Middle Eastern’s round pita flatbread — included “G-d is my shepherd I shall not want” embedded within its store sign.

As I continued down the main artery of the market I was met with shop signs such as “Barech,” Bless, “Maimonides’ Path” and so on.

As the years have gone by, my awareness of the imperfect state of life in Israel has sharpened, be it the bureaucratic challenges or incompetence, the raw nerves spurred by the security situation, the intense high stakes politics, the unresolved conflict whose wound is real, and other tensions too.

Like most things that as you get older, you see them in their fullness. Israel is no exception. It’s not the Jewish Disneyland it seems when you are younger.

And yet.

That magic. That Israeli magic that pulled you in when you were younger, never stops pulling you in.

That deeper Jewish living, and identity, that harmony of your interior and exterior so in sync with each other, and with the Jewish calendar, is priceless.

The depth of Jewish life that is inlaid into so many of the layers of Israel living, be they casual or lofty.

After all the tourists left before Labor Day Weekend (I know, these days I’m technically a tourist myself, although psychologically I consider myself part Israeli), after the school year officially commenced, when I went out and about, it felt like the Old Jerusalem had returned.

In preparation for Rosh Hashanah, instead of showcasing the normative braided Shabbat challah loaves, some of the market bakeries were already displaying the sweetly shellacked with an extra layer of honey, glistening round woven and sesame or raisin studded challahs.

Even the Arab vendor of a fruit and vegetable nook was pointing to the clusters of fresh amber colored dates and other specialty produce, telling his customers about each of them in detail as he urged them “labrachot shel Rosh Hashanah, labrachot shel Rosh Hashanah” — it’s the perfect produce to procure Rosh Hashanah “blessings.” He is referencing the custom of eating a fruit for the first time in the season to be able to recite the Shehechiyanu blessing. He is referencing the custom of the simanim, the symbolic foods over which we utter the yehi ratzon blessing, the “may it be” prayers of hope for the new year, the most famous being the apple dipped in honey expressing our hope for a sweet new year.

The immersive Days of Awe environment of Jerusalem, of Israel as a whole, create the ambiance of pre-Rosh Hashanah not just externally, but internally too.

As your thoughts and emotions shift to the wobbly transition that Rosh Hashanah can sometimes feel like; depending on the kind of year it has been, this time can feel a bit precarious, like a teetering of betwixt and between. It’s a strengthening time, though. The past is behind. There is a sense of demarcation, of the potential to start anew, and hope for good. Invariably, so much has changed since this time last year, and yet again we do our best to adapt.

I left Israel with that sense of an impending Rosh Hashanah.

Upon my arrival back to New York City, the piercing and spiritually uplifting shofar blasts was replaced by the mundane screeching of the subway rising from the grates on the street that is just outside my apartment.

As it turned out, though, I arrived back to New York City just as it was 9/11.

The somber feeling here feels fluid with the Rosh Hashanah thoughts that had begun to bud in my mind and heart back in Jerusalem.

A brief paragraph I come across catches my eye.

The head of a company survived 9/11 because his son started kindergarten.

Another man was alive bc it was his turn to bring donuts.

One woman was late because her alarm clock didn’t go off on time.

Another was late because of being stuck on the NJ Turnpike due to an auto accident.

One missed the bus.

One spilled food on her clothes and had to take time to change.

One’s car wouldn’t start.

One went back to answer the telephone.

One had a child that dawdled and didn’t get ready as soon as he should have.

One couldn’t catch a taxi.

One was because a man who put on a new pair of shoes that morning developed a blister on his foot before he reached the Towers. He stopped at a drug store to buy a bandaid. That’s why he is alive today.

Without delving into the theology behind these words, they certainly illustrate the sensitivity and fragility of life.

The holiday journey that commenced in Jerusalem for me this year continues in New York City, and will continue further in Denver.

While the quality and sense of the sacred Days of Awe in Jerusalem is indeed notable and singular in its force and vigor, the Rosh Hashanah theme of contemplating and reevaluating our deeds and life path, of committing to change for the better, of emphasizing the preciousness of life, of redoubling our efforts to care for others, and of our hopes and dreams for a better, more healing and sweeter year ahead, transcend wherever we might be geographically, emotionally or spiritually.

So wherever, dear reader, you are on your path right now, I wish you and yours a very sweet new year. May we all be inscribed in the book of life. Shana Tova!

Copyright © 2023 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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