The celebration of Rosh Hashanah, commonly referred to as the Jewish New Year, begins tonight at sundown.
I cherish my memories of Nana and the New Year.
Me: It’s not the new year, the new year is in January.
Nana: It is the new year of the Hebrew calendar and I think you know that.
Me: Shouldn’t there be just one calendar, seems confusing to have two.
Nana: Oh there are more than two. Didn’t you go to Chinatown for Chinese New Year?
Me: I thought that was just a festival with fireworks and costumes.
Nana: Really? That’s what you thought? So the book you read and the report you did for “extra bonus” (she meant extra credit), what was that about?
I’m sure my face was all mushed up at this point and my evil little eyes were gleaming. I loved teasing Nana, she enjoyed it so.
Me: Will you read to me in Russian and Hebrew?
Nana: No, you have no respect.
Me: feigning hurt – But …
Nana: Of course I’ll read to you as long as you try to pronounce the words the right way. We have a deal. You fix my English, I teach Russian and Hebrew and all the Yiddish sayings you love so much.
Me: Fine – still being a pain
Nana: I teach 3 languages, you teach 1. Doesn’t seem fair.
Me: I’ll go get the challah bread.
Challah bread is one of the gifts of the universe. Round, with a golden colored crust and light layers of goodness inside.
Nana: We’ll go together. And we’ll stop at the park to feed the squirrels and birds. I have some old bread ready for them. And some plain nuts.
Me: Is it Jewish Rye?
Nana: Yes, it is Jewish Rye for the birds for the New Year – she is laughing.
Me: And why are we throwing away the plain nuts?
Nana: Because I hate them, they are like eating rocks.
Me: But you can’t eat the salty ones, the doctor …
Nana: You’re not the boss of me – laughing even more
My father did not allow me to go to synagogue with Nana and she would not allow me to defy him or lie to my Mother. So I would walk her there and wait in the park in the back. The sound of the shofar always made me cry a bit – it still does.
I wish my aunts and uncles had exhibited more respect for Nana’s beliefs and traditions. My grandfather, a Christian, has insisted his children be raised in the Roman Catholic church. He was of the opinion that this would “make them more American”. Nana agreed. I think my grandfather was a source of huge hurt and disappointment to Nana. She had been so young when she married him and then they had fled Russia and then they struggled to just survive in America. I know she loved him and she would not want me to be disrespectful. Even now. I can hear her – “I don’t care how old you are! Some things are do what I say. Period.”
Years and years later one of my uncles embraced Judaism when he married.
I was always uncomfortable with organized religion but I was always fascinated by the history and the traditions. To this day I have a hodge podge of traditions that comfort me and that I believe honor Nana.
We would have New Year’s dinner together. Apples and honey cooked and baked into and onto a million different things. Rich thick cider and sparkling water.
Me: All these fruits and vegetables, I want a hamburger.
Nana: I made you a hamburger.
Me: No way!
Nana: I did, I did.
She would have some little dish covered with her “fancy holiday cloth napkins” and she would offer it across the table.
Me: This is really going to be a hamburger?
Nana: as I removed the napkin – Yes it is schmutz face, made from the tongue of a yak.
Nana’s giggle was music. Tonight at sundown I will close my eyes and hear it, and her Yiddish jokes, and her singing in Russian. I will hear the shofar. I will remember how the cloth napkins always smelled like spices.
I will remember, as I always do, that she was one of the most extraordinary people to have ever lived.
Shana Tova my friends. Be happy, be kind. Accept. Live and Learn.
And, as always, there is Hope …