Shana Tova! Happy New Year! It’s the year 5775 and once again I am going through the tradition of two days of celebration filled with apples and honey later followed by a day of fasting. If you haven’t guessed yet, I am Jewish. I was born into an interfaith family and my parents “converted “ me to Judaism at birth, as my mother is not Jewish. I grew up as a member of the Danforth Jewish Circle (DJC) in Toronto; a reform synagogue that hold services in Eastminister United Church. The ceremonies to ring out the New Year are always filled with love, celebration, and a lot of home cooking. Since moving to Victoria for university three years ago, I haven’t had the time to take part in the usual festivities. But it was more than a time issue; I simply did not want to try to find a new shul. However, this year I thought I would turn over a new leaf and actually go to High Holiday services. Yet for the first time in my twenty-one years I experienced culture shock in my own culture.
Tradition is a very important aspect to Judaism. It is perfectly represented in the opening number of “Fiddler on the Roof”—the tradition of going to shul and seeing your family and friends gather, the tradition of eating together, and the tradition of celebration and reflection. With that said, I also experience certain traditions that I looked forward to every year growing up. Like the tradition of sitting in the balcony with my best friend, Sophie, and texting to each other in our prayer books, the tradition of working in child care to “get out of” fasting, the tradition of listening to the choir sing but missing the rest of the services, the tradition of hearing the first cry of the shofar. All these activities intermingled to make the New Year so important to me. And these traditions are also intertwined with memories. The memory of seeing my proud father’s face the first year I stayed through all the High Holiday services and even fasted (this was the year after my Bat Mitzvah). The memory of drinking my first glass of Kosher wine. And the memory of my last High Holiday at the DJC when I was in grade 12.
I don’t know if it was the feeling of guilt for not partaking in my religion for the past three years, or the need to find new love and experiences in a city that I have felt so much rejection from in the past year, or the need to go to Musaf services to honor the memory of my Bubbie (who passed away in February) that fed my need to partake in High Holiday services this year. But something happened within me, and I had to honor the traditions of my religion.
So here I was on the evening of September 25. I found a shul online in Victoria that looked promising. A community centre encouraging anyone to come and celebrate the New Year. So I went to their evening Rosh Hashanah services with my “goyishe” friend Lindsay in tow: after all, holidays are also about sharing with friends! But I found myself at the most orthodox shul on Vancouver Island. For a girl who grew in a reform temple this was a very different experience—filled with traditions that I had never experienced before. The whole service was in Hebrew, the Rabbi spoke with a thick accent; he seemed the cookie cutter cutout of the perfect traditional orthodox Jewish Rabbi from central casting. Hearing the services through a language that I didn’t understand was a jarring experience. I had to rely on sheer muscle memory in order to follow along (thank goodness I have an actor’s memory!). I kept nervously glancing at my friend to gauge her her experience, and by the end of the night (the evening service for Rosh Hashana is only one hour long) I felt a strong mix of emotions. Firstly, I felt incredibly homesick. It was as if I understood how the Jews felt long ago. Those celebrating away from their home country for the first time. Or how my own family must have felt during their first High Holiday services in upstate New York after fleeing Europe during the Second World War. I felt a longing for home and all of its traditions that I haven’t felt before. Secondly, I was amazed by the differences in Judaism. This orthodox shul utilized a mechitza (a divider that segregated the sexes). It was something archaic that shocked me: I believe in men and women being equal in all respects, and certainly able to reflect and pray standing beside each other. But at the end of the day, the honey cake was made with love and care, the apple and honey tasted as sweet as always, and the sense of celebration hung in the air as people mingled during the Kaddish. The energy was the same although the traditions slightly different.
For Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services I went to a different shul, one closer to where I live and one where I could sit where I wanted. This time I went to a Conservative Egalitarian shul. Still filled with different traditions from what I have been used to, but some traditions felt closer to home. Another “goyishe” friend Tyler joined me and we both had a really great time. I think my first mistake a week previously was going into shul expecting to experience my usual traditions, only to find out that the shul was different and believed and carried out different traditions.
In the end, I am really happy that I was able to partake in High Holiday services in Victoria. However, I am making a pact with myself that from now on that I will try to go home for a portion of the holidays. Just like coming home for Christmas is so important to some people, I discovered this week that coming home for the High Holidays is really important to me. But most importantly this weekend I was able to honour the memory of my Bubbie so not only the DJC congregation remembered her this year, but so did a shul in Victoria.
I know this is an “unorthodox” (pun intended) piece for this kind of blog. But I felt the need to write this down somewhere. I need people to understand the significance of the High Holidays, a lesson that I needed to learn myself this year. Traditions are important. But sometimes you need a little change in your life in order to understand what is truly important to you. The year 5775 has barely begun and I have already learned a lot about myself through this experience.