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.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.