Every year in the synagogue of my childhood, we started our Hebrew lessons over again. There were too few of us to divide into two classes, so every fall, to accommodate the (doubtless) one new student, we’d begin back at the beginning with the alphabet, pronouns, a few basic nouns, and an article or two. Needless to say, I never got very far. Of “Rosh Hashanah” I can translate only the “Ha,” which means the; Google can do the rest: “Rosh” means head and “shanah” means year.
For Jews, it’s the head of the year again. If it’s not marked on your calendar, you can tell from the challah. Usually the loaves are straight—knotty with braided strands, tapered at the ends, but straight. For Rosh Hashanah, you make them sweeter and you make them round.
Judaism adores symbols. The noun “shanah” comes from the verb “shanah,” which means repeat. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the circle of life, the cycle of the year. Round and round, over and over it repeats: Grandpa intoning at the head of the table with his prayer book. Grandma dishing out her celebrated matzoh balls. My kids veering between respectful and silly. All the guests wishing each other “Shanah Tovah”—a good year—as they part. My husband at the front door reminding the kids to go back and thank Grandma before we leave.
We’d just gotten home when my daughter announced that she was 45% Jewish. I thought she was doing some complicated math involving the fact that her grandmother grew up Episcopalian and then converted, but . . . no. She meant that she felt about that amount Jewish. Jesse volunteered 0%—he can be a bit doctrinaire—and then, reconsidering, upped it to 5%. Presumably on account of the matzoh balls.
From a Jewish perspective, of course, Lena is 100% Jewish because I, her mother, am a Jew. In terms of education, participation, and belief, she’s none. She does not go to synagogue or Sunday school; she knows no prayers; she equates God with Santa Claus: two things her classmates believe in that she knows are pretend.
I get why I feel Jewish, despite my lack of belief. I was bat mitzvah, after all. I learned how to say “Mother” and “Father” and “I” and “you” in Hebrew class every year.
But what makes Lena feel Jewish? Could it simply be dinners like these, cousins’ bar mitzvahs, and the persistent and aggravating lack of a Christmas tree? Do kids just naturally want to belong to groups?
I may have underestimated the power of these forces. Still, at the head of the year 5775, I believe I can report that such power can diminish over time.
Back in April, Lena told me about an exchange with a friend who kept trying to bond with her over Easter. “I mean, really” she said that she said to this girl, “I’m Jewish—remember?” Six months ago, in other words, Lena felt so Jewish she figuratively slapped her forehead at the idea that someone wouldn’t know that essential fact about her.
Today, “45%.” I won’t try to do the fake math, but maybe her self-image is shifting slightly. And as I look back on Rosh Hashanah dinner, it strikes me that all of our percentages are changing.
We didn’t dress up as much as we used to. Adam wasn’t forced, or even asked, to wear a yarmulke. His father didn’t harangue him about going to synagogue the next day or try to get us to let the kids go. Because of my determination to be more vocal (and less equivocal), everyone at the table—both family and family friends—knew clearly where Adam and I and our kids stood on issues of belief and belonging, God and Torah. And, for the first year I can remember, nobody said anything to Noah (now almost 14) about when or whether he would be bar mitzvah.
Hebrew is a fascinating language; I wish I’d gotten farther along. I even have a couple of Hebrew grammars on my shelf from lapsed later-life resolutions. Most of the vocabulary is based on what they call triliteral stems, three-letter roots. For “shanah”—year and repeat—that root is shin, nun, hay. Which is the same as for the word change. Change and repeat and year, all essentially the same word.
I love that. The hands move around and around the clock face, unchanging, and yet, every time they pass the same spot, time has passed. Things have changed. So, yes, there I am still placing my round challah on the dining room table, still standing quietly while my sister-in-law lights the candles, still sipping the wine after the blessing. There I am, celebrating a Jewish holiday, the same way I have for years and years.
And yet, at the same time, I am gently but firmly moving away from religion, and leading my children away too. Seated around that holiday table, we may look like we’re back at the beginning again. But we’re not in the same place at all. The year is, in fact, new.