High Holidays On Three Different Continents
This year, I spent the High Holidays in Brazil. My parents spent them at home in Seattle. And my younger brother spent the week in Paris on his semester study abroad program. This was my brother’s and my first time out of America for the High Holidays. This separation made me realize the great comfort of being a Jew in America.
My parents’ experience on Mercer Island (also known as Moishe Island because of the large Jewish community) was typical of my childhood, which I had always taken for granted. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, they went to services at our welcoming Conservative synagogue. My Grandma sang in the choir, and afterwards, my family gathered at her house for a meal. I was jealous.
That is not to say that my experience was less than what I would have experienced at home, but it was certainly different. In a southeastern city in Brazil called Curitiba, I attended services at the local Chabad. Some things were similar to home, and other things different.
Much to my surprise when I first walked into the Chabad house, the security was even greater than what I experienced at home. Before walking in, the security outside asked each person entering their name and if they had been to this synagogue before. After being questioned and watched for suspicious reactions, we were let into a holding area – a hallway with a heavy door in and a heavy door out. The hallway was lined with thick one-way glass and the second door would not open until the first was closed. Once I stepped into the synagogue, many things reminded me of home. The tunes of the prayers were similar and the shofar sounded as robust as always.
There were older people with stories. An older woman recalled how her family escaped Eastern Europe after World War II and came to Brazil for refuge, speaking only Yiddish and Russian. She told me about how during Easter, Christians in her Brazilian town threw stones at a puppet of Judas and even threw stones at neighboring Jews. She was always scared to speak her native language out of fear of being stoned.
During lunch, we had rounded challah, gefilte fish, brisket, and honey cake for dessert. But also on the table was Guaraná Antarctica, the famous Brazilian soda. The guests spoke in a diverse mix of Portuguese, Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish, and English. Then, we walked a distance for the Tashlich service in a city square that had a running water pond with fish. We were instructed to leave the synagogue as a whole group, as we had comprehensive security following us – two security guards in front of the group, one in back, and two whole armed and armored police vehicles. The looks that our group received as we walked over to the park and blew the shofar in the park were priceless.
My brother’s experience in Paris was unfortunately limited because of the constant anti-Semitic attacks that occur in Paris, especially on Jewish holidays. He was advised by Jews and non-Jews alike to skip High Holiday events this year. According to the Service for the Protection of the Jewish Community of France (SPCJ), a 91% increase in anti-Semitic acts were recorded in the first seven months of 2014. And this year, the Israeli National Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau issued a severe terror alert from the eve of Rosh Hashanah until the end of the festival of Sukkot, especially in Western Europe. According to data gathered from more than 800 European Jewish communities around the world, 70 percent choose not to go to synagogue during the High Holidays and 40 percent continue to hide their Jewish identity altogether. So like many others this year, my brother chose to observe the holidays only in his heart.
The experience of being Jewish on the High Holidays differs all over the world, which is even evident within my small family of four. In some places, the typical, comfortable environment makes Jews forget that other Jews have it rougher. In other places, security reminds the pack of Jews of their vulnerability as a minority. And for others, their surroundings make it so uncertain that they make a decision out of their own security not to participate at all.
What carried me through being away from my family and community during the High Holidays was a sense of unity with Jews around the world, and with Jews of the past. I found comfort remembering that no matter where Jews are celebrating, each one identifies with and celebrates this New Year at least in their hearts. In this way, I am connected to each one of my family members and with my ancestors no matter how, or where, I celebrate.
Eliana Rudee is a contributor to the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied International Relations and Jewish Studies. Follow her @ellierudee.