Celebrating Rosh Hashanah
Tomorrow, Friday, Sept. 18, at sunset, members of Martha's Vineyard's Jewish community will begin the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. As different as it is from the secular calendar celebration of New Year's, there are shared elements: a sense of renewal, time for reflection, and an opportunity to correct the past year's failings and abuses by asking forgiveness and making resolutions that lead to becoming better selves.
Before 1938, when Henry and Mae Cronig helped buy the small house where services were held, Martha's Vineyard's approximately dozen or so Jewish families would attend Rosh Hashanah services at the Center Street home of Samuel and Libby Cronig, parents of Ruth Stiller, who now lives in the Vineyard Haven house. She remembers that the Rosh Hashanah observance was orthodox - "because that is what our parents were" - with men and women sitting separately.
Ms. Stiller will be observing Rosh Hashanah at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center tomorrow and Saturday. "All the past [Center] presidents will be called to the Torah," she says, naming her late brother and sister, Carly and Anne Cronig, who along with her, served terms. "It was expected of us to be part of the leadership group," she says.
Rosh Hashanah (Head of the Year) is essentially a solemn observance of reaffirmation that is followed, after 10 days, by Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). During those 10 days of repentance, congregants are charged to offer prayers and perform charitable acts and good deeds, in effect to begin anew.
Many Jews may follow a custom on the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah called tashlich (casting off) in which they walk to flowing water, say a prayer, and symbolically throw their sins into the water.
An essential tradition is the sounding of the shofar, a ram's horn that is blown for 100 notes during services as a spiritual wake-up call to repent and to honor God's judgment, goodness, and mercy in the New Year.
God opens the Books of Life and Death. It is declared that this is the time when the Lord notes the names of who will live, and who will die; who will have a full and satisfying year; and who will have a year of challenge and struggle. But it is a person's deeds during this period that can change one's fate. This is when Jews collectively ask to be forgiven for their sins. It is on Yom Kippur that fates are sealed.
It is during this time that Jewish people greet each other with the salutation, "L'shanah tovah tikatevoo" (May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year).
"We go to the services at the Hebrew Center," says author Geraldine Brooks, speaking of her husband, the author Tony Horwitz, and their sons, Nathaniel (13) and Bizu (6) who live in Vineyard Haven. "Nathaniel will be playing the harp."
Ms. Brooks says, "The Hebrew Center is such a welcoming and interesting place. It's meaningful with the readings and discussions. We never thought we'd look forward to services," she admits. "It was more of a duty, but now it's a pleasure because of Rabbi Caryn Broitman."
An important part of the holiday is having family and friends gather around dinner tables - where most Jewish holidays are celebrated.
Ms. Brooks says, "I tend to connect best with the traditions in the kitchen," noting that she'll be baking a round challah (a braided egg-twist bread symbolizing completion) from Joan Nathan's cookbook, "Jewish Cooking in America."
The traditional holiday foods include the round challah, apples, and honey - symbolizing wishes for a sweet year ahead.
"I'm making rugalach (a small rolled sweet) right now," Aquinnah resident Marsha Shufrin (wife of Tom Seeman) says, and with a laugh, adds, "We've revised our traditional food." She explains, "My sister Gail and I get together and spend the day going over the menu: chicken, vegetable tzimmes (prunes and sweet potatoes) brown rice and tofu."
Ms. Shufrin says, "It's just automatic; the family gets together. This is what we did when my parents were alive. There are about nine family members. Lenny (her brother-in-law, Oak Bluffs teacher Lenny Schoenfeld) recites the Kiddish (blessing over the wine), the blessing over the challah, and we light the candles. We have a long-standing tradition of discussing the rabbi's sermon. And we always have apples and honey."
Rosh Hashanah is a time that fosters good remembrances. Long-time Hebrew Center stalwarts Norman and Diana Freed share similar memories of walking to synagogue. Ms. Freed recalls, "I have this wonderful vision of when I was growing up in Pittsfield. It was two miles to the synagogue, but we did it every year. It is such a sweet memory of our whole family walking together."
And Mr. Freed, who grew up in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., remembers walking to services with his father and older brother. And Ms. Freed shares a part of the service that she especially enjoys: "Rabbi Broitman tells us we can't really just ask God for forgiveness; we have to ask each other," and she describes how the members of the congregation greet each other and ask for pardon. "It's a sense of renewal - of vowing to do better."