On the Other Hand: Heads and tails

Let’s hope the coming year will see a new level of communication, built on mutual respect, admission that nobody has monopoly on loving this land.

September 27, 2011 22:23
4 minute read.

Fish 311. (photo credit: Laszlo Balogh/Reuters)

Back at my first Rosh Hashana spent in Israel many years ago, I came face to face with a fish head. And in the staredown, it was me who blinked.

The scene was a far cry from what I had been accustomed to growing up in a suburban American, Conservative Jewish home. There we took vacation days from school or work, dressed up in our suits and ties for solemn, drawn-out services at the local “temple” and then ate the traditional Jewish comfort foods of chicken soup, brisket and tzimmes.

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Rosh Hashana in Safed, where I arrived to participate in the amazing Old City work/study program Livnot U’Lehibanot, was like landing on Mars. Nobody had to take time off to go synagogue, which proved to be a boisterous, casual affair without a tie in sight. And at the dinner table of the traditional Moroccan family in the Safed neighborhood of Cnaan, where I found myself set up for the first evening’s dinner, let’s just say there wasn’t any tzimmes.

However, I was introduced to a series of culinary traditions to mark the new year – lovely customs like eating apples and honey (believe it or not, the first time I had been exposed to this common practice), partaking of pomegranate seeds, and of course, the delicious, braided round hallot.

And because I was the guest for the evening, I was honored amid great flourish and fanfare, as the grandmother of the family, beaming with pride, carried a tray out of the kitchen and set it before me. And there I was, staring (and blinking) at the fish head, the ultimate symbol in their household of bringing in the new year with its blessing “May you be at the head of the new year and not its tail.”

The fish in question might have been a carp, or maybe a mackerel. I wouldn’t know, I was too concerned with staring at its eye there on the plate. Serving whole fish might be commonplace in Israel, but where I came from, filet was the name of the game.

Would I insult my hosts beyond repair if I refused to tuck into the morsel in front of me? Knowing that was unthinkable, I feigned elation and picked at a few pieces as far away from the eyeball as possible, and then graciously passed the plate around to the extended family gathered at the table.

I sighed, thinking I was home free. Then the sheep’s brain came out (maybe a little overkill on the “head of the year” theme) and the scenario repeated itself.

Thank goodness rabbit skulls weren’t next on the menu, which moved to the slightly more conventional main course of stewed beef with prunes on top of couscous. Slightly shaken, but not totally stirred by the experience, I survived my first Israeli Rosh Hashana, and – fish heads and sheep’s brains included – actually ended up staying in the country.

And, like most Israelis, I did eventually end up finding a way to observe Rosh Hashana that included customs I was more familiar and at home with. After moving to Jerusalem, I joined a thriving egalitarian Masorti congregation and became ensconced amid the vast pluralistic nature that the capital has to offer. And after much trial and error, I found the right number roast at the supermarket to prepare a reasonable facsimile of my mother’s brisket.

If I learned anything from my first and subsequent Rosh Hashanas spent here, it’s that there’s no one way to observe the holiday. The long “three day weekend” aspect enables non-shul goers to head to the great outdoors. At the same time, the synagogues – whether they be Orthodox or one of the plethora of alternative religious options – from Reform and Humanist to Masorti and Reconstructionist – are standing room only.

If there’s any wish I can bestow on the House of Israel as we enter 5772, it’s that we develop a higher sense of tolerance and mutual respect for each other and our differing viewpoints – whether they be of a religious or political variety, and whether it be on a street corner, Knesset chamber, or close to home, at The Jerusalem Post.

Increasingly, some talkbacks on our website are becoming a battleground, full of vitriol that tends to go way past the norms of civil discourse. There is a way to express opinions and disapproval of published pieces and subsequent reactions to them without descending into senseless hatred. After all, we have enough enemies wishing us harm for us to be forging such a deep chasm within our own people.

Let’s hope that the coming new year will see us striving for a new level of communication, built on mutual respect and the admission that nobody has a monopoly on loving this land – and that this devotion can be expressed in different, but no less valid, ways. Only then can we really find our place at the head of the year and not at its tail.

The entire staff of The Jerusalem Post joins me in wishing all of our readers a joyous Shana Tova.

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