My First Rosh Hashanah in the Land of Milk, Apples and Honey
JNS.org – The other day, I hopped on the bus and headed towards my Shabbat host for the weekend in Baka, a beautiful and quiet neighborhood in Jerusalem. Settling into my seat in the front of the bus, I thought about all the things I needed to do before the Jewish holidays — finish some homework, schedule a doctor’s appointment, follow up with a colleague, write an article…the list goes on, longer than I’d care to admit.
My mind wandered off to my boyfriend, who is making aliyah in a month, and the apartment search we would soon begin. I daydreamed about our life in Israel, the place where we met and will begin our life together.
Looking out the bus window to check if I had time to get started on my to-do list, I realized we were much farther than I anticipated. Even more than that, I had taken the wrong bus!
I must have been so used to taking this “wrong” bus to my favorite grocery store (okay, mall) that I was on autopilot when I boarded it. I laughed it off, got off the bus and walked the rest of the way to my friend’s place, reflecting on how in the world I had managed to take the wrong bus in the first place. Only then did I realize how unreliable my autopilot had been. I needed an alarm to rouse me from zoning out and defaulting to my usual routine. Luckily, Rosh Hashanah was coming and would provide the much-needed wakeup call.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, can be compared to an alarm clock for one’s life. All year, we get used to going through the motions — going to work, cooking, eating, going to the gym, meeting with friends and observing the cyclical holidays. Rosh Hashanah is intended to wake us out of autopilot like an alarm, causing us to examine that which has become ingrained in our daily lives, but may not be beneficial.
Rosh Hashanah gives us the space to reflect on these things, turn off the autopilot, and ask the “control tower” to chart a new path for us. This is precisely one reason why we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. It startles us like the alarm clock, telling us to snap out of our daily routines and to reflect. We also dip apples in honey for a sweet new year, go to synagogue and make resolutions for the coming year.
This coming year brings more new things in my life than any other year in my past, and perhaps my near future! This is the first time I will be away from America for more than a half-year. I have new friends, new teachers, new systems to get used to, a new language to learn, and a very new home in which to settle.
In ulpan (Hebrew language immersion school), we celebrated Rosh Hashanah with something like a school assembly from my childhood, full of festive songs, performances, and short addresses by the ulpan staff. In my ulpan class, we wrote New Year greetings to each other in Hebrew and ate Krembo, which is called the “ice cream of the winter.” Even though it is very much still hot outside, Rosh Hashanah usually aligns with the beginning of autumn.
This year’s Rosh Hashanah experience in Israel was quite different from the ones in my past. Up until college, I spent Rosh Hashanah at home with my family, going to synagogue and having a family party. Then, when I went to college, I spent the holiday with Hillel, the major organization for Jewish life on my college campus, attending services and dinner at Hillel with all of my Jewish friends. Last year, in Brazil, I went to Chabad services and the community meal with my boyfriend.
This year is different. As many of my friends left to go to their families’ homes in Israel, I stayed in my ulpan and went to Rosh Hashanah meals and services around Jerusalem. While I feel a little lonely without my family and best friends here, with whom I am used to celebrating, I am not alone in the slightest.
This is the first Rosh Hashanah that I am spending in the land of Israel, in Jerusalem, with other “lone olim” who do not yet have family here, with the most generous and kind people who have offered to host me, and most importantly, with myself. As I have previously mentioned, being in Israel fosters constant reflection. This is true even more as I find myself in Jerusalem without my usual family celebrations and organizations that plan the meals and festivities. But thankfully, these conditions have made my Rosh Hashanah more of a reflective time than a lonely time.
People whom I had never even met hosted me for lunches and dinners so I would have every meal covered during Rosh Hashanah break at ulpan. This is completely normal here — and one of my favorite things about Israel. Israelis believe that every person is family and nobody should be alone during the holidays. Because Israel is a country of immigrants, many people are hosted for holiday meals, especially young people.
For one meal, I was invited by an English couple that made aliyah years ago. Because they, too, had been new immigrants without family in Israel, they love to host ulpan students like us — at the table sat five from England, one from Belgium, one from Russia and three from the U.S. We talked about aliyah, our reasons for coming to Israel, our professions, and we played Jewish geography over four courses of sweet and plentiful Rosh Hashanah food.
Another meal was in the Old City, hosted by a Chabad rabbi with a window directly facing the Hurva synagogue. To say it was a prime spot doesn’t even begin to cover it. We were in the best country in the world to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, in the best city, and in the best part of the city. From our vantage point on the roof, my friends and I beheld the landscape, contemplating the countless other Jews who have celebrated Rosh Hashanah in the same spot for thousands of years. And we were keeping that tradition, and it felt like a big deal.
I found lunch hosts through a friend and went without any expectations, but I was blown away by their hospitality and openness to me, as we had never met before. Four generations of the family were at the meal, and I was the only guest. They welcomed me into their home and family, told me stories of the great-grandparents who were born in Algeria and moved to France and ultimately to Israel. They invited me back for the next day, welcomed in one of my friends who didn’t have a meal; and this time, after the meal, we sat and looked at photographs taken by the host, an esteemed photographer in Israel. His photographs captured so many events that shaped the course of history of the State of Israel—the Holy Land where we were so fortunate to be observing the Jewish New Year.
One of his photos, commissioned shortly after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, depicted a folded-up, bloodstained copy of a song Rabin had in his pocket at the time of his assassination. The song’s title read “song of peace” in Hebrew, and the now-retired photographer recalled how he picked up the song sheet to take the photo, and it was still wet from Rabin’s blood. After the meal, he invited me back for Shabbat and Yom Kippur, and gave me a parting gift: a piece of his own artwork — a picture of a sunflower that he edited to look like a painting. I took the beautiful piece only tentatively, but his son assured me that his father would be truly happy if I accepted it. Of course, I did, and it is my first piece of artwork that will hang in my first apartment here. After the meal, I walked away with the framed original photograph, a full belly and a huge smile on my face.
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought and the author of the new “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied International Relations and Jewish Studies. She was published in USA Today and Forbes after writing about her experiences in Israel last summer. Follow her aliyah column on JNS.org, Facebook, and Instagram.