THIS IS MY favorite time of the Jewish calendar, and also my most challenging. Growing up, we didn’t go to Shabbat services regularly or even have shabbat dinners, but we made a big deal of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I can still picture the Post-It notes my mom would put in the various dishes as she was setting up for Rosh Hashanah dinner to help her remember which kugel would go in which dish. I loved the first sweet taste of apples and challah dipped in honey for the new year, and sitting in that large hotel ballroom (where my synagogue held its High Holy Day services in order to accommodate the larger crowd) listening to our beloved rabbi declare after every song “this is my favorite one.” For Yom Kippur we’d get together with the extended family for breakfast after a day of services at synagogue. This time of the year was all about family.
As I’ve grown, become a rabbi, and had my own kids, my High Holy Day experience has gone through many transformations. The month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, followed by Sukkot, have all the major themes of what it means to be Jewish packed into two months of holidays. From deep introspective reflection, to forgiveness, to the theology of what it means for G-d to control who lives and dies. And the celebration of the new Jewish calendar year and the welcoming of a new seasonal harvest.
The joyful themes of the new year are easy to teach to children and celebrate with families. With my own kids we do a lot of art activities and singing Jewish new year songs. Around August I start adding books we’ve gotten from PJ Library into our nighttime reading routine and we start talking about the holidays. But the themes of teshuvah (repentance) and divine retribution are a bit more tough, even for the older kids and adults in our communities. These are some of the themes my sixth and seventh grade class will be discussing at Temple Beth David’s religious school this month. It may be easy to celebrate only the happy new year aspect of the High Holy Days and skip the tough stuff, but that’s ignoring an important aspect of what it is to live a Jewish life. Talking about the tough stuff and thinking about the role G-d and teshuvah play in our daily lives is vital to Jewish practice. There is a reason these holidays come right after another- it’s to remind us that there is no celebration without reflection, no joy without challenge.
Rabbi Keara Stein lives in Pasadena and works with interfaith couples and families to engage in Jewish life. She is the incoming 6-7th grade teacher at Temple Beth David Religious School.