My First Rosh Hashanah

While we talk basically every day, Peter and I don’t see each other very often. He lives in Cambridge, Mass.; I live in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Once the book arrives in November, though, we’ll be traveling together a lot for promotional readings and talks. We’ll keep you posted on those events.)

He and his wife, Amy, invited me for Rosh Hashanah, and so, I made the trip. Amtrak was terrible, and I arrived to the new year’s dinner a little later than I’d hoped — right into the middle of a party. They’d invited several other friends, most of whom have kids, so I was tackled at the door (this was Peter’s son, Sam), and welcomed with my first ever bite of filter fish.

There to celebrate my first Jewish New Year, as a Catholic — and for a long time, a vegan — I could note a whole variety of things that struck me about the huge spread, the conversations, the mayhem: Peter’s always wanted me to try his mother’s chicken soup; that was the first course, as delicious as it was simple (carrots, matzo balls, chicken, broth). Hebrew spoken by an Israeli (in attendance) is more enchanting and mysterious than when Peter, raised in the Boston suburbs, has his hand at it. And brisket is just as good the second day, when served for Shabbat.

It was the blessing before the meal, though, that impressed me most. Raised with the traditional Catholic prayer before meals — Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen — I wasn’t sure what to expect when Peter quieted the room and asked for our attention. It had the feel, at first, of a typical, even secular, new year’s wish — that we might put behind us the failures and disappointments of the previous year and make resolutions looking forward. There was very little “God” in what Peter had prepared to say.

Knowing well, though, that many of us are not ready to put our current disappointments and failures behind us — in other words, life doesn’t always fall in line with the Jewish calendar, and there is still work to be done — Peter went on to suggest that our New Year’s resolution might be to look with new eyes at our current situations (good or bad), and use the holiday as a moment to reflect on what else can be done.

The Jewish Reform Movement is publishing its new prayer book, theĀ Mishkan T’filah. Not quite in time for the High Holidays, but it will be available soon. There hasn’t been a new siddur from the Reform Movement since 1975, called The Gates of Prayer. The new book is a departure from in that it seeks to engage not only non-Jews (given the rate of interfaith marriages), but also those that don’t even believe in God. A prayer book for atheists? What are they doing praying anyway?

Recently Scott and I wrote an essay in which we argue that belief is not a necessary component to a religious life, and in fact, oftentimes literal belief in any one conception of God can be a dangerous thing. What isn’t made clear in this essay, but does come through in The Faith Between Us, is that while Scott is an atheist I am a theist. And despite all the years of working on the book, talking about it with friends and family, there are still those that are surprised, and maybe even a little disheartened to know that about me.

And so I think the Reform movement has the right idea. This kind of prayer book suggests that belief is sometimes simply a way of speaking about the world, a language that we use to try and apprehend the ineffable. And so the language of prayer must also be able to stretch and make room for all the different ways we construct our dialogue with, yes, holiness.