OPED: Gathering and remembering what it means to be Jewish

Sally Friedman
Tribune News Service

As summer melted into fall each year, my sister and I were taken to a tall stone building called a synagogue. But we called it a "syn-a-Bob," a tribute to the man at the ice cream store we both loved. We thought that was hilarious. Our parents — not so much.

Samuel Mauda tests a horn at a factory in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sept. 25, 2016. Jews blow the traditional "shofar" or ram's horn while praying in synagogues during religious holidays. The Rosh Hashana or the Jewish New Year begins at sundown Sunday, Oct. 2. Photo by Xinhua/Sipa USA

At the front of the huge room was someone called a rabbi and we learned quickly that in his presence, we'd better behave. No talking no giggling, and certainly no running around outside, which was our fervent wish.

That this holiday called Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year — was a very special time was both implicit and explicit.

After synagogue, we'd pile into our old Plymouth and drive the 30 minutes that seemed like forever to our maternal grandmother's house. There, relatives pinched our cheeks, told us we had gotten so tall and asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up.

My mother and her sisters would be in the kitchen preparing more food than I had ever seen in one place.

So yes, Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish New Year, was a blend of mystery, wonder, excitement and something sweet called "rugelach" that Grandmom had made just for the "kinder" — the children.

One year, there was a guest with weird numbers scratched into his arms. It terrified us, but we were warned not to ask him about it.

It would still be a few years until we understood what was behind the grown-ups' longtime whispers about the Holocaust. And in a way, it also was an introduction to one powerful aspect of what it means to be Jewish.

"Could it all possibly happen again?" we sometimes ask one another, fervently hoping — and, yes, believing — that the answer is no.

It's hard to explain to those who are not Jewish how that unease has now traveled through my grandparents' and parents' generation, mine, our children's, and yes, most difficult for me, our grandchildren's.

But as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah in our individual ways, in our varied houses of worship, and in newly defined family configurations, there will be a certain optimism. Here we still are.

So we'll pass the symbolic apples dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet new year. Challah, a sweet bread studded with raisins, will be on many tables. On ours, there will be some throwbacks to Eastern European fare — heavy and rich. But there will be some concessions to the gluten-free worshipers and vegetarians among us.

Sometime during the Rosh Hashanah meal, I'll look around the table and realize that no matter how many years pass, I'll forever miss the faces of my parents. This is a day when the past lives in the present — and it should.

We'll Skype the three oldest grandchildren who are scattered, and I'll grudgingly concede that yes, technology-talk is better than none at all.

In the bustle and confusion, but before the younger grandkids scatter to do their own thing, my husband, the family patriarch, will clear his throat and talk to us briefly about this holiday, this country, this world, and, yes, this family.

Because in the end, Jewish tradition is all about family, about how we live our lives far from the czars who drove our ancestors out of their homelands.

The son of Eastern European immigrants, and a first-generation American, my husband understands that for his parents and grandparents, America was the ultimate dream, and the new year always brings back that legacy of hope.

As we all sip the sweet wine, Vic will remind us of how our traditions must be passed on and upheld because of the centuries we have survived to proudly call ourselves Jews.

And what a privilege that reminder is at every Jewish New Year.

— Sally Friedman is a writer in Moorestown, N.J.