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