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What The Jewish New Year Looks Like In Brooklyn

While my family passed those first few lonely months in quarantine together in Brooklyn, the pandemic’s epicenter, my three children and I watched a video about how a honeybee becomes a queen. The video was meant to distract the kiddies from the fact that we were sleeping on my mother’s floor (instead of in our own apartment down the street) because my mother is in a high risk category for COVID, and to ensure I could sit for five minutes and have a cup of coffee without someone yelling “wipe my tooshy please!” The video turned out to be a little too advanced for my babes, so I watched the rest by myself. 

The pandemic had turned me into a person I didn’t recognize. I was back at my childhood home as if I were 15. I am 39. My husband Adrian had lost his job. I was teaching two college classes remotely, and some of my students seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth. Friends and neighbors were dying at a rapid pace.

My day consisted of trying to control everything in a world gone out of control. I cooked, cleaned, changed diapers, and dried many tears—often my own. I left the house once a week for a large grocery shop, I taught, showed up for Zoom sessions for my oldest daughter’s Pre-K class and I baked challah. I was terrified of visiting the kosher bakery, as COVID-19 had ravaged the Jewish community around my mother’s house.

Ambulances made nightly appearances down my mother’s block. Did I mention I carried a 2-month-old newborn everywhere I went? I was exhausted. The only creature who could possibly understand a Jewish mother trying to keep two faiths alive in her family while Zooming, praying and complaining, is a queen bee. 

What does all of this have to do with Rosh Hashanah? I’m getting there. Bees make honey, obviously, but what I learned from this video was that bees work like crazy. Even though the male bees hang around all summer waiting to impregnate the female bee, those lady bees do all the work, bringing food back to the hive nonstop to produce honey. They live only about six weeks before dying of exhaustion. The queen bee can live for five years, though, laying two thousand eggs a day surviving on a protein called “royal jelly.” 

I didn’t know how I was surviving. Suffice it to say, our hive was always buzzing. Everything in my mom’s house seemed to break at once, and Adrian was busy fixing things much of the time while I was watching the kids.

At the epicenter of a pandemic with no end in sight, it’s easy to lose hope, it’s easy to lose faith. But the video that was meant to distract my children taught me that lady bees never give up. There’s no time to quit. Quit what? Life? You can’t quit life. You must go through it. As we come out the other side of the darkness, there is always a sweetness, the delicious taste of survival and endurance, which we Jews have known for eons. Rosh Hashanah itself, which is fast approaching, is an entire holiday based around honey.

Nobody in our hive quit. Helen, my oldest, graduated Pre-K on Zoom. Alma, my 2-year-old, learned new words and got the same education as her sister by joining Helen’s class every day. In the same house where I took my own first steps, Mathias, the baby, started eating solid food, smiling and crawling. My mother often said we saved her, that the isolation would have killed her before the virus, and we told her how grateful we were for staying with her. We all plowed through.

Now it’s August. Things have calmed in the city, although we are still being as careful as ever. My family is back in our little, cozy apartment. Rosh Hashanah is approaching, an entire holiday based around honey, sweetness and all things sacred. As a new year approaches, so does a new beginning, maybe a new life.

We have no synagogue to go to. Because we belong to an Orthodox synagogue, virtual Rosh Hashanah is out of the question. Our synagogue will have indoor services and my family is far too frightened to attend. We are looking for a virtual service, but nothing feels right. However, it is crucial that my family attends some kind of a traditional service, as Rosh Hashanah is the holiest of days, a day we cannot miss.

Anna's synagogue in Brooklyn, NY
Anna’s family’s synagogue in Brooklyn

In my husband’s native Mexico, honey is used much the way we use it today: in tea or for a cold. But the ancient Mayas also used honey to cure diseases and treat sensory organs, and for religious purposes, just as the Jews do. On Rosh Hashanah we dip sliced apples into honey to symbolize what we hope will be a sweet year.

Jews must also hear the blowing of the shofar, a ram’s horn, on the new year. The shofar is blown in order to awaken the Jews from a “spiritual slumber.” It is also tied to the days of repentance that follow. It is a reminder of sacrifice, pain, hard work and “the voiceless scream” (our souls crying out to be brought back to our creator, to something larger, something far greater than a pandemic). The shofar is one of the main reasons I am researching outdoor Rosh Hashanah services in Brooklyn.

At the end of the bee video the queen dies. Inside the royal jelly a new queen is formed, like a second spirit of the original queen. The first queen is almost reincarnated into this new queen spirit. As new lady bees buzz the hive, the work continues, because the work never stops. It can’t. Honey becomes a reminder that the sweetness of life always exists.

Things change all around us. Our religious services feel different, but God is the same. God hasn’t changed. God never changes. Faith remains. The queen endures. She transforms. It’s what makes her a natural born leader.

Anna Keller

Anna is a writer and teacher who lives in Brooklyn with her family.


Author: Anna Keller