The onset of fall, along with the celebration of the Jewish high holydays, serves to remind me every year of the cyclical nature of life and seasonal change. For me, fall is a season of renewal and remembrance.
Usually these religious days come in September or October, depending on the lunar calendar. I can smell the dried leaves on the sidewalk and call up the feeling of warm sun on my skin, walking to synagogue with my family in Sacramento as a child: Hot weather and the feeling of obligation and specialness, of time together, rolled into a tactile memory.
As a child, my life was governed by the academic calendar, and that reinforced the cyclical imagery and new beginnings embedded in celebrating Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Days of Remembrance and the Day of Atonement. As an adult, away from my home and from my childhood congregation, the community that I grew up in, I still get those feelings: Here is another fall. Another year has passed. What have I done in the past year, and what should I do in the next? Whom do I miss? Whom have I offended and need to mend? Where does the time go??
Sitting yesterday in the Great Synagogue in Stockholm, chanting familiar prayers to unfamiliar tunes and trying to read the translations in Swedish, I looked up into the ceiling into an alien architecture. The orientalist design of the windows, the Swedish hues in the painted strips on the decorative wood curlicues, the benches with their old-fashioned hinged seats and cupboards for the kipot and talit marked with the nametags of the people who have come to this synagogue to celebrate together for decades — I felt like an observer and outsider.
I missed my family. I missed the voice of the cantor I grew up with, Chazzan Carl Naluai. He taught me to chant Hebrew prayers and to think critically about Jewish texts. Carl died last year, and I cried for him yesterday morning — or rather I cried for myself, because I will never hear his beautiful voice again or be able to ask him what he thinks about certain philosophical questions. I missed a sense of belonging to a community filled with people whom I know and love.
But after a while, the faces of the people around me began to look familiar. In a weird way, I was reminded of the adults I grew up with in synagogue in California. I thought about what it would feel like to be an adult in that congregation now, and how my parents might have felt, taking me to shul as a child. And what it might be like to come back to this Great Synagogue every year.
And as I said the same prayers that we say every year, I could feel the threads that reach back to my parents’ parents and their forebears. I felt connected to them through the words that they may have spoken every fall, perhaps even chanted in the same way as I did yesterday morning. Although I probably interpret our family’s religion very differently than they did even half a century ago, the idea that they performed some of the same rituals strikes me deeply.
Happy new year, everyone! May the next year be a sweet, happy and healthy year for us all!