In Judaism, we love a rule. No eating pork. No eating milk with meat. No working on a Saturday. The list goes on and on.
But one thing Judaism never says ‘no’ to is celebrating the schmit out of any festival. (Confession: there’s no such Yiddish word, but it feels like there should be.) Lots of food, lots of family and lots of noise is generally a good indicator that something holy-ish is going on in a Jewish home – and a lot of eating cake (honey for New Year, cheese for Shavuot, or doughnuts at Chanukah). But tonight, as we usher in a new Jewish year, the house will seem eerily quiet. With the new Rule of Six, festivities have been all but cancelled and, for the first time in my lifetime, Rosh Hashanah will come and go quietly.
With Christmas only three months away, I can’t help wondering if this is a glimpse of more disappointment to come. At first it seemed unthinkable – Rosh Hashanah with grandchildren and grandparents, siblings and cousins apart. (As a family of five, even having just one set of grandparents takes us over the limit.) But as Boris announced new restrictions a fortnight ago, family gatherings were cancelled, plans were undone and the unthinkable swiftly became a reality – as it has so many times during these past six strange months.
So tomorrow, instead of heading off to Synagogue in my Saturday best, I’ll most likely spend most of the day in my PJs. Synagogues now have booking systems to avoid big crowds, so seats have been like gold dust. (Although with no kids allowed and chairs spread so far apart that you can’t even chat to the person next to you, Synagogue has admittedly lost a certain appeal.)
And over the next two days, instead of Ottolenghi-style feasts for dinners and lunches, meals will be a more muted affair. Even the blowing of the shofar, the ancient horn and a central New Year ritual, now comes with an official Government warning – published on the High Holy Day page of the gov.uk website, in itself something I’d never thought I’d see. Boris advises to never share your shofar with any other blowers and no tooting in anyone’s direction (which all sounds like a weird PSHE lesson to me.)
The shofar is the ancient equivalent of the Calm app, but instead of gently chiming bells and slowly trickling water, it creates a sound so deep and resonant that your insides vibrate, your head feels like it’s bursting and you have no option but to face your own thoughts. Whether it really is the power of those oscillating sound waves or of what’s bound up in everything it’s meant to represent, it’s a sound that moves me to pause and to reflect. We would usually hear it in synagogue but we’ll be giving it a go at home this year. At least Covid can’t touch that element of New Year.
Perhaps, in that sense, there’s even an opportunity for it to be enhanced. A quieter New Year may mean more time for what the festival is really about – self-reflection and self-improvement.
Thankfully, the other tradition that hasn’t been cancelled is eating honey cake, which represents hope for a sweet year ahead – something I’ll be eating extra fervently for this year. Let’s just hope by the time Christmas puddings come around, grandparents and their grandkids will be tucking in together.