“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
How many will pass and how many are born,
Who shall live and who shall die..
Who shall rest and who shall wander..”
As you can probably tell from this ancient verse, the Jewish version of New Year ain’t some breezy rendition of Auld Lang Syne, cheeky kiss at midnight, and fleeting resolution to give up chocolate. No, Rosh Hashanah is a very different kettle of (gefilte) fish.
In fact, it’s Judaism’s Day of Judgment no less – or at least its annual version – when one’s deeds are scrutinised, divine judgement is meted out, and our fates become sealed for the year ahead.
It’s basically one’s annual appraisal with God, with all the same apologies and promises, but without the chocolate bourbons.
And as such, Jewish New Year is less an excuse for a knees-up, and more a deeply solemn day of reflection: a day of scrupulously looking back over the year, dutifully recalling one’s past deeds, and endeavouring to make your 2018-9 version an upgrade on the current one. Even for someone like me, whose Jewish identity is more cultural than religious, it can still have a strong resonance.
Various rituals abound on this day. Some people visit a nearby lake or stream to symbolically throw one’s sins into its cleansing waters. Whilst in synagogue, the soundtrack to all this earnest soul-searching is the piercing toot of the shofar, the ceremonious ram’s horn that rouses one to reflect on various events in biblical history – from Abraham and Isaac to Joshua and Jericho, and even the very dawn of Creation itself.
Yes, Rosh Hashanah is all about the past. But whilst many Jewish festivals also recall biblical events from millennia gone by, Rosh Hashanah uniquely immerses us in our own past, not just the past of our people.
For me though, Rosh Hashanah brings up the past in another way. It brings alive memories of family members no longer with us. Fond memories. And in particular, of my late, great Auntie Ruth..
(Oh, Auntie Ruth. How best to describe you? How best to conjure your spirit and your verve?..)
My association of Auntie Ruth with Rosh Hashanah goes back to the festive family gatherings she’d host each year. Immaculate spreads she put out too – big briny balls of homemade gefilte fish and sweet n’ sour slivers of home-pickled cucumbers being my perennial favourites.
That the same dishes appeared year after year didn’t detract at all – in fact it only served to instil the timelessness of the occasion. Meanwhile, Auntie Ruth would buzz about, an ebullient little honey bee dropping in from person to person, catching up with everybody’s news.
Auntie Ruth was undoubtedly a force of nature, a bundle of fizz, a pocket whirlwind. Even in her later years – and despite the deep loss of her husband, Uncle Phil, many years before – she never lost her spirit, her strength of character, her warmth, her optimism, or the sheer love she had for those around her.
In her, such qualities were quite colossal. They were especially pronounced since they were packed into what was admittedly a rather tiny frame, something she herself would often jest about. Even when the tip of her thumb had to be removed to treat a growing tumour, she’d just shrug with a telling – “well, now I’m even tinier!” – and smile on.
I’m sure such events were actually incredibly tough for her – as a great nephew, I didn’t know her as intimately as her own immediate family or closest friends, so I rarely saw her that troubled or upset. But despite her own experience of grief and pain – or maybe in part because of it – she was also always deeply supportive to my own family, and particularly when we went through some tough times of our own.
Indeed, when I was growing up, she’d be a regular at our house. Even after I’d left home for university, she’d always make a point of dropping by every time I was up. She’d keenly ask how I was getting on, what I was up to, and gently scold my mum whenever she’d enquire into my (admittedly rather scant) love life.. whilst then cheekily pry herself once my mum had left the room.
Well, you certainly could never accuse Auntie Ruth of beating around the bush. Instead, she’d torpedo said bush with a lash from her tongue and a mischievous glint in her eye. But as refreshingly blunt and cheeky as she often was, she was never discourteous or rude, and her humour was just wonderful. I was always deeply touched by her visits.
Auntie Ruth sadly died some years ago now. But despite this, every time I visit Manchester, especially around Rosh Hashanah time, she always comes to mind so vividly. In fact, her vivacious nature was just so strong, her presence so welcome, that I sometimes even forget she’s no longer around.
And in that brief moment, she is still very much alive. Tangibly alive. I’m quite expecting her to be ringing on our doorbell at any moment, duly followed by our customary frenzied bear-hug, which by dint of our discrepancies in height resulted in her being swept unceremoniously off the ground, her feet dangling almost comically in mid-air – for that was how we did our greetings.
But, inevitably, such expectancy is followed by an acute pang of grief when I realise she really is no longer with us. Then, curiously, any such feeling is soon displaced by a sense of comfort. My memories of her are just so filled with warmth that I cannot help but feel the love that she so imbued in those around her.
So yes, for me, Rosh Hashanah is about looking back. Feeling the past. Being reminded of Auntie Ruth. But – and it’s an important but – if there’s one thing about Auntie Ruth, it is that she wasn’t someone who overly lingered on the past, dwelling on this or that. No, she was one to get on with things, to look forward, to embrace life and the future with all the energy and optimism she could muster.
And it’s this same spirit of hope and positivity that’s also captured by the apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah that she’d serve year after year, a conspicuous ritual of the festive meal, and probably the most recognisable of all the symbolic foods of Judaism.
As a child, apples and honey effectively were Rosh Hashanah. Never mind all that long drawn-out prayer-mumbling in synagogue – the festival truly came alive at that first bite of fruit after it’s been dipped into thick syrupy nectar.
After all, it was also one of my very first lessons into how flavours and textures can combine into something quite special. That having something crisp and tart can go so well with something sweet and luscious. A realisation that a combination can be more than the sum of the parts.
And indeed, this is reflected in their symbolism too – the apples to remind us to aspire towards goodness, the honey to harbour hope of sweet things to come. One is about what we can do, what we can change, what we can work at; the other’s about what’s beyond our control, but how nevertheless we must never lose our hope.
It’s a bit like the much-quoted Serenity Prayer – “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” – except it’s a Jewish version, so it has to involve food.
Goodness and hope. Here is Judaism finally looking forward. At its most upbeat. Never mind the past, the fruit and nectar seem to say – look towards the future. Nay, embrace the future! Don’t forget who you are, but still strive to be the best you can be; work hard in all that you do and stand for; and never cease to love and care for those around you.
Just like my Auntie Ruth used to do.
If you liked this piece, you may be interested in my tribute to my late Grandma Beryl – and her incredible chicken soup. Meanwhile, for more on the significance of apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, here’s a post you may enjoy from Poppy And Prune. And finally, whether you’re one to eat apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah or not, just wishing you a hearty ‘Shanah Tovah’ – a good and sweet year ahead!
Apples and Honey on Rosh Hashanah