Apples and Honey: A Jew-ish New Year's Testimony

Pittsburgh, PA, where I visited the Jewish side of my family

This Rosh Hashanah, I'm completely alone. Around me, my tiny house is completely still. A lamp has been left on for a day and a half, warming a notebook left open. A boot lies precariously in balance on top of its partner, and hasn't tipped even a degree since I kicked it off. I haven't been out of the house long enough to recognize how it differs from other spaces, but I can assume it smells like the plums ripening in the four glass bowls on the counters and the French toast I burnt this morning. Apparently, Rosh Hashanah - the Jewish New Year celebration - is spent with family. While trying to write this post, I looked it up. I often ask myself how 'family' applies, as with many other family-focused Jewish celebrations. I guess I'm not doing it right, but that's just based on what Google told me.

I grew up religious until I started public school in kindergarten. In elementary school, it was my parents that would come in and talk about Hanukkah. However, I quickly lost my knowledge. I lost my alefbet, the songs sung in my Jewish preschool only fragments of melody thirteen years later. I knew the Sabbath day only as Shabbat, and the way my grandfather would say "Good morning, and Good Shabbos to you" on the phone whenever I called. We stopped observing on Fridays, we missed days in Hanukkah. Even though I was encouraged to begin the process for bat mitzvah, I never did.

I often questioned my validity within the definition. I have never once attended a service in town that wasn't for someone else's bar, bat, or funeral. I love cheeseburgers, shrimp, and pork broth with ramen. I'm the least-Jewish Jew I know, I tell myself. And yet, sharp, dissonant whispers of my upbringing remain. When I was playing with friends in elementary school, a boy 'converted' three of my (Christian, and though it shouldn't have mattered, it did) friends to his 'church' and wouldn't let me 'have them back' unless I too converted.

How could I? I wasn't about to join any church. It didn't feel right. I walked away without anyone and went to the library instead.

freshman year

I cut my curly, frizzy hair as short as I was allowed to when I was in freshman year, feeling cursed with looking like Hermione in the first movie. When it was still long, I seldom did anything with it. When I had it out of a bun or ponytail, I was told it was messy and out of control. The solutions to it were straightening, using chemicals or products, or hours of agonizing brushing. When I got head lice in the fifth grade, it was nothing short of hell for everyone involved. From cultural nuances I wouldn't understand until I was older, like my frizz being 'messy', to the way kids played around me, I was often at a loss for positive interaction moving forward the way I still was. And so I let my Judaism fade, scratches in paper where once was writing, now hastily erased in a desperate attempt to find belonging.

Just like every teenager in my time, I was undeniably, hilariously lost as a person. Honestly, I still am. Religion became one of those big questions for me when I was thirteen or fourteen. I self-identified as a Jewish person on paperwork, but self-described as an atheist in small-talk. It was when I was fifteen that I was first invited to a Passover dinner at my good friend's house. I warned xem that I was a horrendously bad Jew, and xe assured me that I'd be at home anyways.

I was. I more than was. I didn't know the songs (and the ones I did were in different melodies than I remembered), my pronunciation of the Hebrew was shaky at best, and I watched my friend's plate and actions carefully to figure out how to fit in. But I did enjoy the compote, and the brisket, and I actually really enjoy gefilte fish - who'd've thought? Though I only got marginally better at Pesach over the next few years, I was always welcomed back and embraced.

the grands - oh, and Uncle Robert

So what was this connection to Judaism that I had recently unearthed? With these family-oriented holidays, where were my relatives? I had attended my second-youngest cousin's bat mitzvah (yeah, guess who's the youngest) but besides that knew no other affiliation between them and religion.

My grandparents used to go to temple weekly - that is, of course, until 'they started breaking out the guitar', in the words of my grandfather, who wasn't a fan of the new-age-y stuff going on at Rodef. I asked my dad about the kinds of Jews my grandparents were in the past, and I was surprised to hear that my grandparents only started observing again when my parents got married, perhaps as a good example, or perhaps having been reminded of their roots when my mother converted to Judaism. When I was helping my grandfather in July, I noticed that he had a small container of pork salad in the fridge. Perhaps our flavor of Judaism wasn't kosher, between him and I. My dad doesn't eat kosher, either, though he doesn't eat more pork than a bite off my plate. He says he wasn't raised with it.

Right now, my dad is in Pittsburgh, sorting through my grandfather's apartment. My grandmother died in March, and he followed in August, lost without her. I'll never know why they wavered from tradition between raising my dad and watching him get married. I wonder if they just fell out of habit, but I pretend they faced a similar separation from it as I did when I was in school - subconscious, and only noticeable when complete, another empathy I can share with them to go with my grandmother being branded as a nerd at the same age I was, and my grandfather's love for Shakespeare.

the poor book after the camping incident

I took my dad's Union Home Prayer Book with me to the Renaissance Faire the weekend after my grandfather passed away. As the self-proclaimed coordinator of the group, I was encouraged to go to the Faire instead of attending the funeral, especially since I missed another large event to pay respects to my grandmother. I ceremoniously lit two flashlights (huzzah to the burn ban) and sang the sabbath prayers to gentle strumming of my sewing-ravaged fingers on my camp guitar. I then turned to page 92 and sang through the Mourner's Kaddish to a made-up melody, acapella, as the sun set behind Mount Rainier.

Within me, my pained strumming, and my breath-soft singing, I felt a rock turn in my gut, one that quietly, tearlessly mourned with me in front of my friends, but one that also reminded me that it had been a very long time since I had ever pronounced these syllables, dragged my articulators through the gravelly ch-sound, and said my amens entirely on my own. I later discovered that I hadn't even been pronouncing half of the vowels correctly.

The next day, a surprise torrential rain flooded the tent. We had no idea until we came back to see the rain fly collapsed. We lost sleeping bags, pillows, phone chargers, clothes... My guitar dried out quickly. But there, protecting my cell phone from the ground moisture, was the Union Home Prayer Book, the meditations soaked through and stuck together. Immediately, I opened it to the soaked, blotchy Mourner's Kaddish and left it open in the car, and called my dad in tears. Even though he was bringing home two copies of the same book, signed on the inside with my grandmother's signature, the loss I felt felt nearly akin to the loss of family I have experienced in the last six months.

I had hardly any time to mourn at home. Over the two weeks following my grandfather's passing, I spent maybe four nights in my own bed.

It took me a long time to forgive myself for the loss of the book. In that time, the dried-out and stuck-together book has sat on the kitchen counter next to where we lit Yahrzeit candles for three weeks. I don't know if it's only supposed to be for one, but when the first one ran down, my dad went to the power-outage box and silently, immediately lit another, and then another. (Note to self: Buy more emergency candles.)

My dad and I spent many silent, tearful moments staring into those candles. In the flickering and melting, I felt mourning for my grandfather, with whom I had recorded hours of stories of our family and the history of Pittsburgh, from my great-grandfather's trout-fishing expertise, to floods that rose stories high. I also felt mourning, though, for the short yet mangled personal history in the destroyed prayer book. Like in history, my Judaism had been tested, wiped away, and sometimes erased in ways that only certain kinds of sudden, tragic light could being the old indentations and ghosts to relevance.

not quite at its fluffiest, but taken at the time of writing

My hair is long now. Well - it's not long as it was when I first cut it, but it might as well go back there. My best friend helped me find a product that I can work into my hair so it stops attaching to random things, but doesn't lose its volume. I once detested my frizz, but my 'fluff' became a point of popularity in a different crowd, a celebrated difference. To me, my hair is a reminder from whence I came. My empathy with the Jewish experience is compacted and kept close in my curls, and when they're pulled straight, the length and complexity of my personal and familial history with Judaism is unraveled. They are my grandmother's curls and my grandfather's stories, my dad's wisdom and my questioning - Isn't it my job, as the youngest?

If I can get myself out of the house today, I'll go and buy apples. It's the least I can do.