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Jessica #24 - Brisket Anyone?

May 8, 2009 | by Jessica

Aren't the high holidays supposed to bring spiritual awareness and joy? Jessica finds a lump of loneliness, too.

The High Holidays

Is there any other time of year that so effectively and constantly throws one's "unattachedness" in your face? Somewhere, there must be an extremely honest greeting card that reads, "Shana Tova! And by the way -- find a family!"

"Jessica, just book a ticket. You can catch up on work afterward," my mother had reprimanded me when I told her I definitely was not going to meet Harris' parents for the New Year. She told me I'd be better off coming home to Philly.

I felt as rooted as a hydroponic plant.

I didn't listen. (Of course not -- she's my mother!) Instead, I found myself in Phoenix, feeling about as rooted as a hydroponic plant. As the holidays got closer, I couldn't help but notice a certain evasiveness among my demographic compatriots. Locals with family here were okay, but for the first time, I understood the strangeness of being a solitary single. I never got it when I was living in Philly or in New York, and could just hop in the car or a train and be at mom's Yom Tov table without any fuss. All my friends would kvetch and moan about having to "deal with the holidays" and clamor to be the coveted one or two to accompany me home.

The whole environment is different here. The stores have small Manischewitz displays and some are even at the front of the stores, but there isn't a collective awareness of the Jewish holidays drawing near -- at least not the way I expect from growing up in a Jewish area. Probably because of that, it takes more effort, and lots of people just sort of slide past the holidays...

Something in me was throbbing. This is the Jewish New Year, a time of reflection and celebration, and it just made me feel lonely. A week or two before, I asked Ellen what she was doing for the holidays. She was vague.

"Oh, I haven't decided. Maybe I'll go to services. Maybe not," she replied breezily. "I haven't done the whole synagogue/registry thing."

"The what?" I said, already chuckling.

You register for a china pattern and then pick a temple.

"You know, the To-Do List when you get married... you register at Crate & Barrel and then shlep around checking out temples," she said. "And anyway, I don't want to join a temple just to go to High Holiday services and then end up depressed because I'm surrounded by perfect little families while mine is in Chicago eating tzimmes and brisket without me."

For families, the holidays are a part of their natural rhythm. For we pre-family types, they seemed to require strategizing. Where are the days when Rosh Hashana preparations meant getting a new dress and being sent by mom to buy cans of yams for a sicky-sweet sweet potato dish she makes every year? These days seem to require gargantuan effort: call a gazillion synagogues to figure out where to go, and who else is going where, and is anyone having some sort of meal, and -- oh, yeah -- I still have to buy a new dress.

I briefly considered ignoring the whole thing, but Rina and Steve were wonderful and adamantly insisted that I join them for Rosh Hashana dinner and for services. I actually ended up spending the whole holiday with them, much to Alison's irritation. She wound up going to some hotel in Scottsdale, for some independent new-agey services.

Steve lowered his price-per-service fee to mere pennies a day.

"It's a real conundrum," Rina had said at our festive meal when I griped about the high fees for seats. "All synagogues want people to have a place for services and feel comfortable doing so, but at the same time they have to pay their bills all year round."

"Think about it. At a lot of synagogues, the members only attend this time of year, or maybe one other time for a yahrtzeit," Steve added. "So they're paying their entire membership for two or three services."

Steve attended services almost daily, I mused. That lowered his price-per-service to mere pennies a day. A real bargain!

"I don't see why everyone feels they need to be Jewish just on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur," one of their other guests said.

"I actually find it inspiring," Rina said. "People may not outwardly express much of a connection to being Jewish day-to-day, yet when Yom Kippur rolls around, they feel a need to be there. It shows how powerfully attached people are, even if they don't think about it."

Oh, the irony. When I was 15 or so, I got irritated with my parents for their habit of inviting unattached types to our holiday celebrations -- divorced women, students from Bryn Mawr and Penn. And now I was on the receiving end of such hospitality.

After services on the first day, Ari and Sarah, Rina's kids, sang me the holiday songs they'd been learning in kindergarten and pre-school. Something in me was simultaneously delighted and melancholy as I cut up some apples that in moments would have honey poured all over them.

It shook me a bit to think about how such a short time ago my mom was cutting apples and pouring honey on them for me, decked out in my 5-year-old's finery.

A little alarmed at my mental melodrama, I saw my Bubbe cutting apples for my 5-year-old mother, and my great-grandmother cutting apples for a pre-adolescent Bubbe. And for a lasting moment, I felt as rooted as an oak tree.

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