HomeSeptember 2012New Year in the Fall

New Year in the Fall

What does it mean to live in a country where the New Year is Rosh Hashanah rather than January 1?  Of course, if you are Jewish and care about Jewish traditions, Rosh Hashanah in Israel will provide you with a powerful sense of “group feeling” that comes from living in the only country in the world where Judaism is the majority culture.  I would argue, though, that one doesn’t have to be a religious Jew or even Jewish at all to reap some of the benefits from living in a country where the New Year is in the early fall rather than in the winter.
One of the great things about Rosh Hashanah is that it makes sense of one’s experience of the rhythm of the year.  Whether you are a student or the parent of a student, or whether you are in the work world, there is a sense of something finished at the end of summer and something beginning again in September.  The change in seasons from summer to fall underscores one’s experience of an ending and a beginning.  Part of Rosh Hashanah’s power lies in the fact that at the exact time when we are predisposed toward ritualizing a new beginning, we have Rosh Hashanah.
A major aspect of living in Israel during the fall holiday period is the very fact that the time between Rosh Hashanah and Simchat Torah is a culturally recognized period.  In America, with the exception of children attending day school, the Jewish holidays are experienced as interruptions of one’s work life and one’s school life.  Your classmates and work colleagues are doing their everyday thing, and you know that you will have to play catch-up after each holiday.  In other words, whereas the holidays abroad are experienced as a disruption of one’s regular life, in Israel at this time school and work are experienced as disruptions of the holiday period.
A key difference between experiencing the New Year in Israel as Rosh Hashanah and experiencing it in America as January 1 pertains to the ritualizing of the process of turning over a new leaf in one’s life.  In America people speak about this as making a New Year’s resolution, but because this is not anchored in ritual, it hardly packs any meaning.  You don’t have to be religious to understand that ritual has a function in human society.  Ritual has a way of concentrating one’s attention and underscoring the significance of what one is doing.
In Israel, it is hard to escape from some kind of ritualizing of the New Year.  Phrases such as “may the curses of this past year disappear and the blessing of the new year begin” are alive in the culture throughout this period.  That is, one may come across phrases like this in advertisements for dishwashers, in holiday greeting cards from one’s employer and on late-night radio talk-shows.  Special symbolic foods for the New Year abound at your local supermarket — pomegranates, beets, leeks, carrots, sesame, pumpkin and apples and honey, encouraging one to treat this period with special attention.  A family Rosh Hashanah meal, utilizing some or all of the symbolic foods, serves to ritualize the day for most Israelis.  Rosh Hashanah reflections facilitated by ritual are more anchored in Israeli culture than are New Year’s resolutions in American culture, and hence, one is more apt to experience Rosh Hashanah as a new start than one does January 1.
I cannot end this column without noting one other difference between the Israeli countdown to Rosh Hashanah and the countdown that takes place towards the end of the calendar year in America.  It is important to recognize the fact that the latter countdown is not primarily toward January 1 but toward December 25.  There are psychic and emotional benefits for a Jew to live in a country whose culture counts down not to Christmas but to Rosh Hashanah.
I wish you all a happy and a healthy New Year: Shana Tova.


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