Months ago, as COVID-19 ravaged America and California was a percolating incubus of viral plague, my mind wandered to places serene, spots that had long provided emotional sanctuary: the blue-green Pacific of Careyes, Mexico, the lapping waves of the beaches in Tel Aviv, the swans of Boston Public Garden.
In real life, my kids—a boy and a girl, ages 13 and 11—were inconsolably cranky. My daughter whined her way through Zoom classes and my son, who has autism spectrum disorder, unfurled a flurry of expletives during online sessions with his middle school counselor, screaming for his one-on-one aide who was no longer allowed to assist him in person. My soon-to-be ex-husband had moved out the year prior, and I spent most days feeling like the swing understudy in a community theater production of a lost Ionesco comedy, playing the roles of special needs educator; short-order cook; autism specialist; full-time staff journalist; tween style consultant; and harried single mom. Per the new world order, which seemed to simultaneously revolve around spiking death rates and bread-making tutorials on social media, we made challah once or twice, but then the supermarkets ran out of yeast. So we bought our challah at the kosher bakery and watched the news instead, in turns anxious and despondent in the face of an incompetent, cruel White House and an America come undone, stress and sadness and insanity radiating across the TV screen like the static-hiss spirits in Spielberg’s Poltergeist.
In Minneapolis, a police officer murdered George Floyd; in Los Angeles, where we lived, the streets were burning with anguish and grief, and I marched in outdoor protests, masked and heartbroken and furious. That 2020 was a bust, seemed the understatement of the century.
August came, thick and hot, and, like every year, I began to think about Rosh Hashanah. The Gregorian year, thus far, had been a cataclysmic disaster, but perhaps there was positive systemic change—less death, less hate, more justice in the world—to be found in 5781.
Bring on the apples and honey.
But as a (soon-to-be) divorced Jewish mom whose ex was now dating a tall, blond Yalie from Connecticut (echoes of a J.D. Salinger novella, I know), the High Holidays didn’t exactly inspire in me a desire to bake honey cake and sit around a table with my kids’ dad while he criticized my schnitzel and reminded me how lousy a cook I am. We’d done that for Passover. (Not with schnitzel, of course because that’s breaded; but you get the point.)
We’d always spent the chagim in shul but, this year, due to the pandemic, in-person shul wasn’t an option. As for Zoom? Don’t get me started. I’m not the most Halachically observant Jew on the planet and to each his own—truly. But, I am a hopeless Luddite. To me, nothing sounded less spiritually fulfilling and more depressing than services via Zoom. We’d suffered through the New Math on Zoom, we’d fought our way through speech therapy via Zoom. As a journalist at a magazine, I think since March I’ve partaken in 10,000 collective hours of Zoom editorial meetings. No way was I going to partake in an online version of Musaf. That just sounded like hell. Gehenna, if you will.
I don’t mean to complain. Our people have davened in death camps, the Warsaw Ghetto. I’ve traveled to Jewish communities in Poland where impoverished Holocaust survivors don’t even have food. This conundrum of what to do with my kids on Rosh Hashanah—and yes, their dad, because broken families are par for the course in LA—is a champagne problem. We really could just stay home, force my kids to recite a few prayers, nap. And yet. My divorce was near final, democracy in the United States was hanging by a thread, and I was swimming in a cesspool of existential uncertainty. I ached for a clean slate like I never had before. And I didn’t feel like I could do it in the same spot where my long-dysfunctional marriage reached its ultimate point of implosion.
There had to be a way to ascribe meaning to Rosh Hashanah—for both me and my kids—in a way that was safe, socially distant, and didn’t involve my laptop keyboard. Also, it had to be affordable. Because, again: divorce.
Then my dear friend PJ, whom I’ve known since I was 17 when we met on a USY Pilgrimage trip and got busted by the Tel Aviv police for jumping into the Agam fountain in Dizengoff Square (a story for another time, but a good one), reminded me that the central mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is to hear the sound of shofar.
With that in mind, I began to make a plan for a new sort of Jewish New Year.
First, I had visions of an outdoor grove. Like the sleep-away summer camp Shabbat services of my 1980s youth, I imagined a bimah made of tree stumps and green wooden benches and a breeze bouncing off the lake, gently blowing our hairsprayed bangs to the side. This Rosh Hashanah I wanted nature, wind, air.
This Rosh Hashanah we were going to unplug. There would be no phones, no electronics. No loud, thumping TikTok videos of influencers hocking “merch.” We generally do this anyway (read: scream at my kids to turn off their electronic devices), but this year, as society becomes so tech-saturated that human contact is now as rare a commodity as the dodo, it feels like an even more pressing need.
Maybe we’d drive to the desert, I thought. We could hunker down in a yurt or a cabin in Joshua Tree, channeling our nomadic history as Jews wandering across the Sinai. Light Shabbos and yom tov candles in the remote inky darkness, sample new fruits (per the Rosh Hashanah custom), stargaze. But everything was booked.
Then a friend pointed me in the direction of a few reasonably priced hotels in and around Santa Barbara, about an hour-and-a-half north of where we live, right along the coast. I booked a few nights at the Lavender Inn by the Sea, a cozy little motel that adheres to coronavirus safety protocols, has rooms with kitchenettes so we can cook (or reheat, depending on how lazy I am) our own kosher food, and is located two short blocks from the beach, making it aptly tashlich convenient. On Sunday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we can fill our pockets with slices of bread and toss balled-up crumbs into the sea, chasing after seagulls as they dip and dive. The hotel also offers complimentary bike rentals; maybe we can pedal down to Stearns Wharf. I’ll bring a machzor (the Rosh Hashanah prayer book) on our trip, a grocery bag filled with frozen gefilte fish, round challahs, and ready-made salads, and my ex will likely show up with a brisket (compelled to give credit where credit is due, my kids’ dad is an excellent cook).
As for how much actual davening we will do, well, likely not as much as we did in the pre-COVID-19 days when we went to shul. Although, considering the fact that my kids spent most of their time on the playground and shooting hoops in the makeshift parking lot basketball court—to be honest, this is the part I miss most about shul—probably not much less. I’m picturing us on the beach, plopped down on towels, wet feet caked with sand, dipping sliced apples in honey. Me leading my kids in a discussion of cheshbon hanefesh, the Hebrew term for taking personal inventory of one’s life. When I was pregnant with my son in 2006, there was a period in between writing projects when I thought it made sense to pursue a master’s in Jewish education. I dropped out—because, turns out, I had no real interest in full-time teaching—but I do possess a great love for Talmudic discourse. I’m not sure my kids do. But we shall see. Fine, we’ll probably collect shells. But this, too, could feel spiritual. (I think?)
And then there’s the shofar, the blast of which I truly do look forward to every year. Maybe it’s because I’m a music fanatic. Maybe it’s because in my own Jewish practice, its often not the words of prayers themselves but their melodies and rhythms that resonate within me the most. I’ve collected a few shofars over the years, my favorite being the one I fished out of a dusty, 60-shekel bin at a Judaica shop on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem in 2018 as a Hanukkah gift for my son. Since then, he’s become a bar mitzvah, turned 14 (late August), and has developed a keen appreciation for instruments with which he can make thundering, if not cacophonous and disruptive, noises. He’s been practicing a bit, and while his attempt may not be the clarion call of experienced rabbis and cantors, I think it’ll work just fine. If not, a rabbi friend has connected us with his Santa Barbara-based cohort scheduling a litany of time slots to hear shofar in the great outdoors.
Will all go according to plan? Likely not. Will I miss being at shul and this whole DIY Rosh Hashanah experience feel like a watered-down version of the real thing? Possibly. Will my ex and I argue? For the kids’ sake, we will try our best not to. But we already know that 2020 has been a challenge. Perhaps there is a way through and forward as we shift into 5781. Maybe even, at some point soon, COVID-19 will be contained, my U.S. passport won’t be useless anymore, and we can all cry out in unison: Next Year in Jerusalem.
Malina Saval is the Features Editor at Variety and the author of The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens and the novel Jewish Summer Camp Mafia.