For many Jews, the High Holidays can be fraught with feelings of sadness, loneliness, and regret. And that goes double if you’re a chicken doomed to end up as soup. Or don’t know what fraught means. But even for us humans, one of the reasons for this holiday melancholy is our tendency to idealize High Holidays and synagogue services past, succumbing to precious memories of friends and relatives who’ve moved away, grown away, or passed away. We’d give anything for one more holiday meal with them. Even Uncle Jake, with his same corny jokes and pull-my-finger trick every meal.
We ourselves were younger and more innocent then, as was our country and our world. Wars and enemies could be understood. You could reason with them. The ozone layer was just there, hole-free, doing its job. Ayds was a chocolate appetite-suppressant candy.
Even the food tasted better back then. Probably was better. Or at least we weren’t so obsessive about its pesticides, steroids, fat content or cholesterol. Aunt Sylvia spent all week lovingly cooking it, not picking it up at Gelsons on the way home from her Pilates class while chatting with her therapist on her cell phone’s Bluetooth earpiece.
In California (where I live), the majority of us are present-day pilgrims, having journeyed to the Golden State from other states or countries, in search of a better life. Unfortunately, along with that better life, comes the reality that beloved friends, neighbors, and relatives remain hundreds or thousands of miles away. And if we visit them these days, going over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house can involve Office of Homeland Security screeners and hoping no one on board the airplane is intending to use the plane as a weapon of mass destruction.
In addition, those of us who are divorced, like myself, don’t even have their own family unit for the holidays, especially when one child is away at school and the other has been invited to her friend’s house for the Yom Kippur break fast meal. So, I am often these days without my family back East, and without my family out West. I have become the Lone High Holiday Ranger. “Hi-yo, family, away!”
Fortunately, I am invariably invited to High Holiday celebrations with friends. But this only brings into sharper focus the differences between past and present holiday celebrations. At these satellite family get-togethers, I often feel my spirit leaving my body, floating skyward and looking down at this visitor (me) in the midst of a family to whom I’m not related, enjoying their time together. I’m the family member wannabe, the High Holiday Where’s Waldo, whose striped shirt and ski cap make me easy to spot among the legitimate family members. How fortunate they are to be enjoying one another in the same home, in the same city, with the same memories of having grown up together, instead of, like me, sending one another holiday e-greeting cards and fruit of the month club boxes of grapefruit.
During last year’s High Holidays, however, I started thinking differently about my situation and about the holidays, which, after all, I reminded myself, are about repenting and making a new start. I started putting things into perspective. There are so many people who don’t have the very basic things I’d been taking for granted – jobs, dwellings, money, health, friends. There are so many people with nothing. I started tallying up my blessings and realized I had so much to be thankful for; I became ashamed of myself for having wallowed in HHSP – High Holiday Self-Pity.
So I removed the striped shirt and ski cap, and joined yet another family that wasn’t my own, a family of strangers that hadn’t even invited me to join them. And so, if you see me feeding the needy at a Jewish soup kitchen this holiday season, you will not be seeing a man filled with regret over some golden age of High Holidays past. There’s no time for that. Too many people with too little to be thankful for, need to be fed and wished L’Shanah Tovah. Do I still miss my past High Holidays? Of course. Even Uncle Jake. But if someone should happen to ask me this year, “How were your Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?” I will respond, “The best yet.” And mean it.