It’s late afternoon here. Most of the sunlight has already left my new apartment for the day, although it’s still plenty bright outside. Bugs are buzzing, birds are cawing, cats are screaming at each other, cars are passing by, at least one baby is crying, and Hebrew-speaking voices are echoing in the stairwell, frequently with calls of חג שמה! (Chag Sameach–Happy Holiday!) and שנה טובה! (Shana Tova–Happy New Year!)
In just a few hours, the sun will set and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year of 5777, will begin.
I’ve always liked having a new year in the fall. Probably that’s because I’ve spent the vast majority of my life in school. I started preschool at 2 and a half, and since then I’ve spent all of one year not in a classroom, on one side of the desk or the other. The idea of the fall as a new beginning makes sense to me because it’s usually a time of transition, more-so in a lot of ways than January 1st. It marks the start of something new.
This year, the really new something is my new place! I officially moved in yesterday and I think I’m going to like it here. The room that I’ve taken over is very much the room of the person I’m subletting from, but I think I’ll be able to make it feel like my space too.
Tonight I’ll be going for services to Kol HaNeshama, a Reform synagogue perhaps 20 minutes walk from here. I’m pretty excited. This is my first Rosh Hashanah as a “Jew in the pew” since starting rabbinical school, and my guess is that it will be the last for some time. I’m hoping to cherish it. It is sweet to be able to choose where to attend services and to go in without anybody expecting anything in particular of me. It’s been sweet this last month not to join my marvelous rabbinic colleagues on the oh-dear-oh-dear-high-holidays-are-coming-and-I-have-so-much-to-do-and-how-oh-how-will-it-ever-get-done-why-is-Elul-almost-over-is-it-Cheshvan-yet? train. It will be sweet to break bread with some new and old classmates over the coming days and to be in a city that will feel like it is experiencing a holiday rather than one in which only a small subset of the population is celebrating. The stores today were packed with people doing last-minute shopping, grabbing up challot and apples and honey like nobody’s business. I can smell a couple of meals being cooked nearby. Rosh Hashanah seems to be on everyone’s minds. I feel like this might be what Christmas (minus the crazy consumerism) feels like for Christians in America? Maybe? Or maybe I’m being super presumptuous in equating the two? Christian friends, you tell me.
In thinking about the year to come, I can’t help but note the 3 sevens of 5777. The Hebrew letter that corresponds to 7 is zayin (ז). Last year, celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Philadelphia, I heard an amazing d’var (sermon) from Rabbi Yael Levy in which she spoke of the year 5776 corresponding to vav (ו), which means “and” in Hebrew. She spoke of the year being a time of connection, of living into the “ands” that life presents to us, of saying yes and entering into the world.
Zayin isn’t quite as easy for me to equate to a Hebrew word. I don’t know it as a prefix, and if it’s an abbreviation it’s usually either short for the Hebrew word for “male” or the first word of “may his memory be for a blessing.” So, I’m going for English.
My hope for this Z-influenced year is that it will be zany— according to the OED “amusingly unconventional and idiosyncratic.” Yeah, its synonyms are things like “kooky” and “mad,” but, you know what, I’ll still take it. There’s a fun onomatopoetic sense to the word. It sounds amusingly edgy.
For me, an amusingly edgy year would be pretty great. After all, here’s the ark. Here’s the cloud atop Mt. Sinai. I’m not in a normal place for me. It’s not going to feel like a totally normal year, and it shouldn’t. It can be terrifying or awkward or depressing, or it can be zany, and that doesn’t sound so bad.
For example, I just bought this challah to bring to lunch at a professor’s tomorrow:
Now you might think that this looks like a round challah, and you would be right. You might also think, if you were buying it at the natural foods store (that I’m sure is going to soak up quite a lot of my budget), that it is 100% whole wheat. And you would be wrong. As I learned when I plugged some of the words into my dictionary, it’s 100% spelt flour. I’m bringing it to lunch anyway. Zany.
For those who are looking towards more “typical” years, I still think zany is a good goal. The difference might be that zaniness gets more-or-less thrust upon me as an ideal framework, whereas for folks in the normal sleeve of life it might be a framework that requires some additional mindfulness. How can you take your normal and make it amusingly unconventional? How can you find amusement in the tough, justice-pursuing work that the world so needs? How can you push against conventionalism when everything just seems blah? How can you break your routines when they’re no longer serving you, and how can you crack a smile when life is throwing so much at you that the idea of a routine seems impossible?
Whether you’re Jewish or not, whether you are celebrating a New Year tonight or just sighing your way into bed before a typical Monday morning, let me invite you into zaniness with me. And I also definitely, for sure, recommend eating some apples dipped in honey. Shana Tova to all. See you in the new year.