By Harriet P. Gross
Tomorrow evening we’ll be sitting down to a special dinner, welcoming the New Year. Most of us will have a round holiday challah on the table, and apples and honey for a bit of sweetness. Many of us will continue the sweetness with honey cake for dessert.
But CLAL suggests that we serve and enjoy something different to end our meal: a birthday cake. Why? Whose birthday is it?
I love CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Several times during the year, it sends out handy little brochures with ideas for better understanding and celebrating our major holidays. The folders are colorful, sturdy and small enough for easy saving. I squirrel mine away and bring them out to review at appropriate times. That’s why I’m mentioning birthday cake here; it was CLAL’s special recommendation for Rosh Hashanah five years ago.
So again the question: Why? And the answer: Because Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world. “While the rabbis of the Talmud debated about when to begin the new year,” CLAL tells us, “some argued that we should mark time from Passover, the birthday of the Jewish people. But they finally decided that our calendar should begin with the first of Tishrei, our tradition’s date for HaYom Harat Olam, the world’s birthday.”
Will you make carrots a part of your Rosh Hashanah dinner menu? You should, if you do the right thing with them — which is to cut them across in rounds. Then they’ll look like bright golden coins, a symbol of plenty in the coming year. I cook mine with honey for sweetness, and a few drops of hot sauce for some added taam: 5770 should have a bit of spice in it, too.
Martin Lindauer, who writes for the online Jewish Magazine, says his Rosh Hashanah last year was “spicier” than he liked: He was in the hospital, having bypass surgery. “God weighs our deeds and judges who will live and who will die,” he says. “I wondered when my life would pass in review. As the medical and spiritual converged, I vowed to appreciate every day — if there were any more in my future.
“I awoke in the recovery room. I was alive! But death was no longer an indefinite ‘later’ — I was mortal, the future was uncertain, and life could no longer be taken for granted. The New Year was an appropriate time for soul-searching, an opportunity to explore a new beginning. I shifted mental gears … I would be different. How could I not revise my life after my heart had been stopped, blood redirected, consciousness suspended? Momentous events like these, I felt, must have serious and lasting consequences. I promised to give thanks for the simple things in life. I swore to take long walks in the park, and pledged to spend more time with my grandchildren….”
For Lindauer, this was a very personal as well as communal New Year. In a way, it was his own new birthday as well as the birthday of the world.
This year, my husband was the one who had open heart surgery just a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah. He starts this new year with cardiac rehab classes. The “zipper” scar on his chest will be a “forever” reminder of modern medicine’s miracles, and of the fact that his name was written into last year’s Book of Life, because he’s lived to be judged yet again, for 5770. He, like Lindauer, has a new appreciation of all the little things most of us take for granted. And I’m sharing his attitude, with its realistic but not depressive acknowledgment of our finite humanity.
When I was a child, my mother took me to the theater to see “Knickerbocker Holiday,” and in my head, Walter Houston is still singing his throaty “September Song” loud and clear, after all these years. The days are indeed growing shorter as we move toward December, in two senses: While each of them gives us less daylight hours, we must also acknowledge that we’re all drawing from personal banks of days whose balances are dropping lower and lower as each of those days passes. Heart surgery may be a wake-up call, but Rosh Hashanah is everyone’s annual opportunity to wake up. Our birthdays are finitely numbered, but the world celebrates every year, infinitely. We need a new understanding and appreciation of our participation.
So there may be a birthday cake dessert on our table this year. Maybe a honey cake with 5770 candles.
By Harriet P. Gross