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A Distillation of Life: “Reflections on Our First High Holidays”

This, the High Holidays, is how it was when we first kissed. It is! Surely you know how it was, then: each of us knowing our lips would meet, and, as the distance between us diminished, feeling the whirlpool of anticipations and fears contract to that singular touch when the kiss was real for the first time. Such a large moment, now delightful in memory. Of course you know!

And we’re here again, she and I, anticipating an intimacy that is tied to the Jewish calendar. Anticipating our first High Holidays together, and I want to tell her all about it, want to describe the experience. She’s Catholic, born and raised, and I’m a Jew, by choice. It’s her first High Holidays, and she loves Judaism. Loves it! I told her I have no right to ask her to become Jewish, and won’t ask. And she said she wants to convert, for herself, as it should be. All in good time. We have time, if we use well the time we have. The calendar pushes time like a wave, cresting this year in mid-September, and we are preparing for that crest. I catch myself wanting to make sure that she likes it, not wanting to just let it be whatever it is for her. I want to kiss for us both!

We read the books together, sections of our favorite books: Michael Strassfeld’s The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, and The Jewish Holidays; Rabbi Arthur I. Waskow’s Seasons of Our Joy: A Modern Guide to the Jewish Holidays, then Irving Greenberg’s The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays. Once they were only my favorites, but in the sharing they have become hers as well. What a delight it is to hear her reactions, her thinking. It renews me to get to see Judaism through her eyes. We talk about where we will go, and when. Tickets… there are tickets? I remember my first reactions as a convert myself. How can there be tickets, and do they really keep track? Can we afford it? Do we want to? Of course we want to. But tickets? To a non-Jew, there is this ticket shock that can happen, like a kiss going bad. It’s a delicate thing. I still feel that way a little, every year, and probably always will. Who would dare sell tickets to Christmas or Easter? A kind of internal conversation takes place, but this year it’s externalized, and we look at it together.

Other realities have their Christian counterparts: the fact that it will be crowded, crowded with many twice-a-year Jews, is like Christmas and Easter services are for Christians. We need the people who only seldom attend but who know in their hearts they are Jewish. People have a way of changing, don’t they, over the years? Personal renewal and deeper involvement are often driven by personal needs. The twice-yearly Jews are a storehouse of Jewish resources, awaiting release in a time of individual need we cannot predict. Elu v’elu… these and also these others …are all part of the evolving community. I didn’t understand this way before. My partner showed me this, as she talked of her own tradition and Easter and Christmas services.

And who better than a Catholic to understand the length of the services, and the special white vestments and Torah covers? Our special Jewish pagentry is wonderful and unique. “Don’t worry,” I say to myself. “She knows from long services!”

The kids, her children, are little ones, and Catholic. They need to remain Catholic, for their father and their extended family are Catholic, and it’s a way they are bonded with those they love. It’s a part of their history, their identity, and that’s so important for us all. The High Holidays services are not for the children, not now. This year these services are for the grownups. One day… who can say what will happen? But not this year.

The kids will have Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with us, at home, in a first-time-friendly way. Our first Rosh Hashanah… “what we do with Elie because he’s Jewish”… will be like a super-Shabbat (Sabbath)! At our table we’ll have the round crown of the special challah (bread made with eggs that is traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah), and the sweetness of apples and honey, and make a lovely meal. There will be candles, wine, blessings, and talk of renewal and forgiveness in the children’s terms, about fresh starts and the first day of the year. How delightful to get a New Year in the fall!

Oh and tashlich, of course! Tashlich is the separate ceremony by which we symbolically cast off our sins by tossing bread crumbs or stones into a natural water source. We’ll find a creek together, and the children will help pick just the right place. We’ll make it fun and talk, be somber, and laugh, and of course they will ask for more crumbs to throw, and think of the hungry unseen fish that are fed. This year, children from our home will take part. What a gift!

I have such deep feelings about the High Holiday services. I want for my love to experience what I can’t explain on Rosh Hashanah: how the sound of the shofar, the ram’s horn, dramatically sounded in the synagogue, viscerally binds me to over two thousand years of Jews who have heard it. How the tashlich breadcrumbs first float on the creek where they are strewn, then as they sink and run away to the sea, how they freshen the air I breathe in the eternal cycle of loss and possibility.

I want her to know, somehow, why I cry at the Kol Nidre prayer on Yom Kippur, so plaintively sung by the cantor at the start of the Yom Kippur service. It’s the same haunting Kol Nidre melody I played on my cello for so many years before I heard it as a Jew and knew why I loved it so. I want her to know why I cry again, shaken to my center by the internal earthquake that is the congregation singing the old melody, “aveinu malkeinu… aveinu malkeinu…”, “our Father, our King…”, the cry for G-d’s compassion despite our failings. All the cantors in all the world don’t reach me like that simple pleading melody. Will she hear it? How does it embrace, penetrate and comfort me? I do not know how. But it does. How can I describe a kiss?

Now wait… Judaism is trustworthy… leave a little to G-d… of course, she’ll know! But she’ll know all that is hers to know. Her eyes, her ears, will be the instruments of the moment for her, not my eyes and ears. All of life is in the High Holiday services; all the hopes and dreams of a year, of a person, of a people; all the sins, too, the marks missed and opportunities lost, and the chance to begin anew. The shofar shatters complacency, declaring that THIS is the day; there is no other day that begins all our remaining days. She will hear what is hers to hear.

What will be hers to treasure, and what to set aside? Sharing her experience will be her gift to me. All of life is in the High Holidays, and all as individual as the amount of ourselves we give to it… a distillation of our own life. Of her life, if she likes. And I love her, and love her life. And I can’t wait to see a little bit, through her eyes; see what is for her the distillation… and so to renew our history again, from this, the new first day and never again the same. Just like that kiss.

Elisha Aharon

Elisha Aharon writes from Duluth, Minnesota. He converted to Judaism in 1991 then finished his degree in Religious Studies at Benedictine College. His special interests are the interrelationship of Christianity and Judaism, and the common ground shared by traditional therapy and spirituality in counseling.