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Recycling Time

Rosh Hashanah, a reminder of the cyclical nature of Jewish life, provides good lessons for parenting

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Children marking Rosh Hashanah in southern France last year. (Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images)

The Jewish New Year is not about counting down to midnight and yelling “whoo!” before promising to join a gym.

Our New Year is about reflection and reassessment. Even those two words tell us we’re supposed to look back as much as we look forward—look at the “re,” telling us to turn around, to stop charging full speed ahead. And in another example of the way language informs what we do, we spend the holiday hoping to be inscribed in the book of life: two words—book, inscription—that speak of permanence. Inscribed books are weighty and lasting—they have historicity. They do not yell “whoo!”

On Rosh Hashanah, lots of us—even people who don’t spend a lot of time in shul or hunched over Jewish texts—make the effort to get to a synagogue. The tunes and prayer-poems are familiar; they’re the same every year. We sing Avinu Malkeynu, asking God to forgive our sins. The refrain is repeated so frequently that it’s easy to sing along. It’s repetitive and dirge-like, and you don’t need to know Hebrew to fall into its rhythm. We await the blowing of the shofar: The sound and the visuals couldn’t be more primal and ancient. Rosh Hashanah’s liturgy is full of descriptions of humans as meaningless little nothings cowering before the Almighty. Even if you don’t subscribe to the old-school version of the smiting Heavenly Father, the king on a throne of judgment, the text is consistent and almost reassuring. Here we are, standing with our community, sniveling in one voice. There’s no narcissism involved.

We do this every year.

But on a secular New Year, repetitiveness is the last thing we want. New Year’s Eve is when we’re supposed to go out, make the scene—and if the scene is somewhere hot and new and exclusive, so much the better. Our resolutions, too, are all about the new. They’re about hurling ourselves forward, full of superhero-like determination to become new. We swear to lose weight, to quit smoking, to find a new job, to get organized. We throw ourselves into our new, new, new lives, only to sputter out by February.

A key difference between the secular and sacred New Years is in the way each looks at time. The secular year is linear; it’s about shooting forward, like an arrow. Looking back only slows you down. That’s part of the American psyche, too. No regrets. Onward and upward. Excelsior.

But Jewish time isn’t linear. It’s circular. The same rituals, melodies, and objects scroll by again and again. They’re like a Torah being rewound or a Viewmaster clicking through familiar, tiny images over and over again. It’s not our tradition to swear to change our external selves on Rosh Hashanah; we look in rather than out. And we look back, thinking of the ways we’ve missed the mark over the past year and resolving to try to be more moral people. We don’t steamroll over our feelings of regret and embarrassment—which is what American culture generally wants us to do. Don’t dwell, our day-to-day world says. Move on. But we Jews don’t play that. We dwell. We examine our flaws as if they were scabs, and then we pick at them. We know we have to apologize to other people. We know we have to think about how to be better people. And we know that better people doesn’t mean shinier, glossier people, but rather more thoughtful people.

On New Year’s Eve, we see ourselves as failures for making the same resolution every year; once again I failed to become a size 6, I failed to learn Spanish, I failed to find love. But on Rosh Hashanah, our samenesses aren’t regarded as failings. We know everything is cyclical. Wanting to be inscribed in the book of life and thinking about what we have to apologize for are what we do every year. Every year we know we’ll have to apologize and take stock. It’s almost a relief. We’re not expected to reinvent ourselves; we’re just supposed to try to be our best selves.

This is a good lesson for parents. The secular New Year’s model really doesn’t work for parenting. It isn’t useful to vow to go fully organic, enroll the kids in violin classes, eliminate white flour, and help with homework every single night. We can’t sustain this fervor of “I will be an entirely different parent.” But the cyclic nature of Rosh Hashanah, the familiarity of the texts and sounds and the soothing childhood taste of apples and honey and the familiar, alarming spongy texture of honeycake and the kind of self-examination this holiday encourages—those are more useful models for parents to emulate. Can we do a little better? Can we remember what it felt like to be a kid? Can we appreciate who our children actually are, right here and right now, while we think about how to be the best parents to them—not some idealized version of our children, but our actual children?

My Rosh Hashanah won’t be all that different from last year’s. My husband and I will negotiate who watches the kids when, how we’ll juggle the family service and adult prayer and reflection time. We’ll spend time with my family. My kids will make construction-paper daisy chains, writing on each link the qualities they hope to encourage in themselves in the coming year. We’ll throw bread into the Hudson River. We’ll read New Year at the Pier, How the Rosh Hashanah Challah Became Round, and Sammy Spider’s First Rosh Hashanah.

But our Sammy Spider years are coming to an end; I figure we have only one or two more holiday cycles to go through with the inquisitive arachnid. The books will be passed on to another, younger family. But not just yet. This year, we’ll be stringing Apple Jacks and Honey Nut Cheerios onto cords, making edible “apple and honey” necklaces—my mom’s idea, something new. Little, thoughtful, incremental changes are doable, and more sustainable than unrealistic vows to tear everything up and launch ourselves headlong into an all-new world.

Have a good, sweet year.

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Meredith says:

This is a beautiful piece, and reflects many of the themes that I hope to incorporate into our family’s Rosh Hashana. But at the same time I find myself wondering, does it have to be so either/or? Can’t we as American Jews value the beauty and meaning of our tradition and *also* enjoy the fun and excitement and themes of secular American celebrations? Do we need to denigrate the one in order to value the other? (I think this is most accute in the annual Halloween vs. Purim debate.) Maybe by incorporating both sides into our lives as American Jews, each will somehow enrich the other. We can teach our children how to both value their unique Jewish heritage and celebrate the pieces of American life that they can share with a multi-cultural array of friends, classmates and neighbors.

This is a beautifully written piece! I’ve always felt that September – with the Rosh Hashanah holiday – marked the beginning of the year for me. I’ve never been one for resolutions and prefer to reflect instead. And now as a mom to a 3-year-old, I’m excited to instill this thinking with my daughter. Thank you for your reflective piece!

ruth bernstein says:

I loved this piece, marjorie! The part about parenting the child you have really spoke to me. I do have one quibble about the “circle” idea, which I think is misleading. Jewish time is more like a spiral than a circle to me–that is, I hope I don’t turn out to be teh exact same this RH as I was last–I hope to be doing at least some things better; maybe I will be a better parent, a more supportive partner,a nicer person or a more helpful colleague.

So when I hear “avinu malkenu” this year, the me that will hear it will be one cycle “up” from the me that heard it last year–it would be so demoralizing to be in the exact same placE! I do think it’s also possible to travel down the spiral, but I don’t think that’s the thing to focus on right now.

Of program like your web page however, you have to measure the spelling on quite some posts. Many of them are rife using spelling issues and I find the idea very bothersome to inform the truth even so I’ll certainly return again.

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Recycling Time

Rosh Hashanah, a reminder of the cyclical nature of Jewish life, provides good lessons for parenting

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