Another New Year

Posted on October 5th, 2016 by

There are so many ways to count the year. Each of us celebrates at least a half a dozen new years every year. There’s January first, of course. But there’s also a fiscal new year (at the JMM, that is July 1). There’s also your birthday (mine is February 14, in case you were wondering). For folks in school or who teach school or who have kids in school, there’s the first day of the new school year. And then there are the Jewish New Years. There’s the first day of the year, in Nissan (the same month as Passover). And there’s Tu B’Shvat, the “new year for the trees.” And, of course, there is Rosh Hashanah.

Jewish New Years card from the Sigel family, c. 1900. JMM 1989.132.1

Jewish New Years card from the Sigel family, c. 1900. JMM 1989.132.1

The “head of the year” is actually the first day of the seventh month. So though we refer to it to our non-Jewish neighbors as the “Jewish New Year,” it’s more nuanced than that. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, in his book Seasons of Our Joy speculates, “perhaps it is the head of the year because it is raised toward heaven, away from the earth–while Pesach [in the first month of the year] celebrates a more earthly liberation, the freedom of our bodies” (1-2).

That distinction between the heavenly and the earthly is interesting. Unlike our secular New Year, when we all make resolutions to lose weight or quit smoking or eat healthier, at Rosh Hashanah, we are expected to make a different kind of resolution. Instead of more trips to the gym, we aim for fewer trips to judgement; rather than counting calories, we are meant to count blessings.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of a new year, and about human capacity for change. Whether the resolution is to lose 10 pounds or to be kinder, we humans seem nearly incapable of making true and lasting change. On January first and on the first of Tishri, each year, we find ourselves in nearly the exact same situation as the year before. Even as we make the resolutions (or the confessions), we do so knowing that we will falter again–we will be right here next year. We do a dance with ourselves and with the Divine, but in the end, we always fail.

It is a depressing thought as I sit here writing on the third of Tishri.

And yet.

On this Rosh Hashanah, I had the honor of the third Aliyah at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, chanting the blessings before and after the third Torah portion was read. I delivered the blessings as intended, and received greetings from my fellow congregants and the clergy. It was lovely, and I felt truly grateful. But it was a moment as I returned to my place in the congregation that truly dispelled my recent feelings of hopelessness: my four-year-old daughter met me in the aisle, and jumped into my arms, smiling ear to ear.

The best traveling companion I could imagine.

The best traveling companion I could imagine.

As I returned to my seat in the sanctuary, now carrying 36 pounds of joy, love, and limitless potential, I felt something even before I had words for it. Yes, I am in the same place I found myself last year. I am confessing the same sins; mourning the same injustices of the past year; committing in the same way to nearly the same actions as last year. But I am not the same because she is not the same.

I intentionally brought that 4-year-old to the “grown-up” service, because I wanted her to see me fully engaged in synagogue life. I wanted her to see that striving that brings us all back to that place of commitment, year after year.

Seeing the service, the holiday, reflected in her eyes reminded me powerfully of the importance of the journey. I was mourning the destination and lost sight of the beauty of travel. That small voice in my ear “Mommy, I love you!” reminded me that while the destination is worth striving for, if I forget to notice my traveling companions, I can never reach it.

With gratitude to all of you on the road with me, I wish you a Shanah Tovah u’Metucha, a good and a sweet new year.

A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

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L’shana Tova

Posted on September 29th, 2016 by

At our Board meeting last week, we had our quarterly approval of new accessions to the JMM collection.  Just about every item we collect has a fascinating story behind it – but there was one set of items neatly tucked in a folder that really grabbed my attention.  It was a collection of “chromolithographs” donated by Myrna Siegel.  Joanna explained that these decorative die cut prints were fairly common in the late 19th and early 20th century… but it was the first set she had seen that was exclusively Jewish themed.  The collection included die cut “scraps” – typically used for early scrap books and home decorations and three rather elaborate Rosh Hashanah cards.

A beautiful Rosh Hashanah card.

A beautiful chromolithograph Rosh Hashanah card.

This got me thinking how traditional are Rosh Hashanah cards.  Regular readers of this blog post may remember my shock at learning that Dreidels are derived from a 16th century German Christmas toy.  Well it turns out that greeting cards/letters for Rosh Hashanah are also of German Jewish origin but have much deeper roots.  According to the Jewish Encyclopedia card giving for the High Holidays is documented in the Book of Customs of Rabbi Jacob in the 14th century.  That’s at least 500 years before the first secular New Year’s card is mailed. Though, truth be told, New Year’s rituals were explicitly discouraged by Christian churches until the late 1500s… so the secular New Year’s holiday itself is a relatively modern celebration.

The new cards are additions to some fascinating Rosh Hashanah greetings we already hold in our collection.

Some have classic themes:

1983.19.16d

1983.19.16d

But others stand out for their novelty, take for example this Jazz Age New Year’s greeting:

1991.141.2

1991.141.2

Among the most extraordinary items is this elaborate holiday greeting from 1917:

1991.9.5

1991.9.5

It is filled with symbols of the immigrant experience and filled with blessings in Hebrew and Yiddish, among these are:  May you live to be 120 years old”, ”May you be blessed on your coming, and on your going out”, ”May we have a life of life and peace and joy and happiness and pleasantness”, ”May you have peace, substantial earned income, good business success, enjoyment, happiness, salvation, pleasantness and everything good.”, ”Happy New Year, may your be inscribed in the book of life”, ”May you be delivered from all your enemies and plagues on your path… and may blessing issue from all your doings.”

99 Rosh Hashanah’s later – I wish you and your family all of the above.

~Marvin

MarvinBlog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

 

 

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Revelation and Tragedy: Shavuot 5776/2016

Posted on June 14th, 2016 by

Last year for Shavuot, I wrote this blog post for my friends and former employers at the Simon Family JCC in Virginia Beach, VA. It gave me the opportunity to learn and ruminate on the affiliation of dairy with this spring-time festival. I came to the conclusion that eating dairy-based food on Shavuot (the festival on which we celebrate our reception of the Torah from God), is a form of extended, embodied metaphor. The Torah is like milk. It is God-given, pure, nutritious. It is complete as it is. But, like milk, when humans turn their attention to the Torah, we create amazing, delicious things—things that are of the God-given ingredients, but also more than.

Image via.

Image via.

This year for Shavuot, for the first time, I attended the “sunrise” Shavuot service at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, the congregational successor of the original Lloyd Street congregation (I put sunrise in quotes because the service begin at 8 AM). The service took place in a small courtyard, fully enclosed by the 1950s synagogue building and its adjacent school. In what can only be described as perfect weather, the assembled prayed and sang. Together, we heard chanted the portion of the Torah that contains the ten commandments.

One of the many awe-inducing moments of this holiday observance was the physical means by which the sacred scroll was supported to allow the cantor to read from it. There was no shulhan—no table—in the improvised courtyard-chapel. Instead, four pre-selected congregants held the scroll aloft and open. Each person held one of the massive handles, they supported its weight and held it at the right angle to allow the cantor to access the appropriate place in the scroll.

As I listened to the ancient words, a light breeze brushed my skin. The sun warmed my face. I looked into the blue sky to see a bird gliding high above, witness to our celebration of revelation.  I took in the view of my fellow congregants supporting the physical words so that the cantor could give them voice. The scroll was open facing me, so that I could see the letters on the parchment. Suddenly I was reminded of my conclusions from last year’s festival—Shavuot is not about a one-way monologue from God to humans; it is a celebration of the collaboration between God and humanity.

Even as I stood in awe in a synagogue courtyard and knew the truth of the importance of the divine-human collaboration, 900 miles away, more than 50 people lay dead and more than 50 others wounded by hate made human. I didn’t know it then, but my moment of transcendence was concurrent to the aftermath of violence aimed at people because of who they love, how they love. Because of who they are.

As I work to comprehend, I have no answers, only the same question—a very old question—on permanent repeat: how can both of these things be true at the same time?

And then a voice from my childhood surfaced on social media. Someone quoted my beloved Mr. Rogers, as they pointed to the more than $350,000 that had already been raised to support the victims of the Orlando terrorist attack and their families: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

A small piece of wisdom

A small piece of wisdom

I thought again of the four Torah-holders, the helpers, God’s helpers. And I knew that they are only a metaphor for the help we all give—or withhold—from the divine every day. When we support one another, when we are helpers, we do God’s work. We take what God provides, emotions, reason, intellect, empathy, physical strength, logic, fortitude, vulnerability, compassion, and we turn them into amazing, delicious things. But we must not forget that by our actions and our choices, the ingredients can also be spoiled, made rancid. We can be made rancid. Both can be true at the same time.

I admit that I still do not comprehend.

 

#OrlandoUnited: How to Donate to Help Victims of the Orlando Nightclub Shooting

Donate Blood via the Red Cross

Resources for the Baltimore and Central Maryland LGBT+ Community

A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

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