I don’t need to remind you of all the reasons that 2020 has been an incredibly rough year. We could all use a fresh start, so it’s a good thing that Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is just around the corner, offering a chance for renewal and new beginning.
As an Iranian Jewish American, I get the pleasure of celebrating three New Years: the Gregorian calendar (New Year’s Eve/Day), the Persian New Year (Nowruz), and the Jewish calendar (Rosh Hashanah). I connect with each of these holidays in my own way, but there is something special about the spiritual essence of Rosh Hashanah.
As a child, the High Holidays for me were a time of repentance, going to synagogue, and gathering with family. As I have gotten older, I have found meaning in all of these three elements for myself. I enjoy the reflective element of going inward and taking note of where I hit the mark and where I can do better next year. I’ve learned not only to love but to crave the beautiful melodies of Aveinu Malkenu and other prayers unique to this time. And would it be a holiday if I didn’t gather with family? My parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins gather around a long table filled with delicious food, good energy, and of course, a Rosh Hashanah seder.
If you’re only familiar with the Passover seder, allow me to explain: Like many Jewish families, we gather to celebrate Rosh Hashanah eating apples dipped in honey and pomegranates, but as Iranian Jews, before we dig into our delicious meal of Persian stews, crispy rice, and other mouthwatering foods, we sit down for a formal seder. The seder consists of nine symbolic signs (simanim in Hebrew) represented by different foods that reflect what we want from God in the year to come.
This practice, mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, dates back thousands of years and was practiced by my ancestors in the region of Iran/Persia. Many believe that at one point, the Rosh Hashanah seder was practiced by Jews of all cultural backgrounds, but today it remains a beloved tradition among many Mizrahi families (Jews from the Middle East and North Africa). Each sign is accompanied by a blessing that begins with “Yehi ratzon” (“May it be your will”) and each food has been carefully chosen based on its taste, texture, or name in Hebrew. I wait all year to eat my mother’s delicious bean stew, the beans representing abundance.
Of course, this year is going to look different. We won’t have a seder with 25+ loved ones. We won’t get to practice the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim — inviting guests that do not have a place to celebrate. And we won’t be going to synagogue to pray in community, recite the special melodies, and hear the sound of the shofar.
The beautiful thing about our tradition during this time of year is that while it’s clearly a time for inner reflection, we often do so in community. In today’s world, “community” has transitioned to our devices and screens. For some, joining a livestreamed service with your local community (or one far away that you’ve never been able to join before) might offer an exciting opportunity this Rosh Hashanah. For others, it’s just not the same.
But one thing is for sure: We don’t need a Zoom meeting or FaceTime to connect with ourselves or with our spirituality. As I prep for the High Holidays this year, I still look to our Jewish tradition to guide me to holiness and connection, while recognizing that it will look different.
Around this time, it is customary to hear the sound of the shofar, the call of the ram’s horn that symbolizes a spiritual wake-up call. While we may not be able to hear the shofar in person this year, the takeaway from why we hear the sound of the shofar still applies — we haven’t missed our chance to have our yearly awakening.
Perhaps this pandemic is the biggest wake-up call for all of us. A reminder to be kinder to others. That our lives are fragile but also that we are resilient. And a reminder that we have less control over our lives than we think. We can still look to our ancient traditions and reimagine them in these unusual times. Personally, I hope to find meaning in the symbolic foods of the Rosh Hashanah seder. Even if I’m not eating them surrounded by friends and family, I’ll be using them to guide the blessings I want to manifest in 5781.
For those not familiar, here are the symbolic foods from the Rosh Hashanah seder, what they represent, and how I’ll be thinking about them this year:
Beans: Abundance. In what area would I like to experience abundance in the year to come?
Leeks. To cut off enemies. What personal traits or self-sabotaging habits are no longer serving me? (Fun fact: Persian Jews do not eat the leeks, but instead rip the leek in half.)
Beets. To depart. What is something in my control that I want to leave behind in the New Year that is holding me back?
Dates. To end our enemies or simplicity/innocence. In what area/towards whom can I practice more compassion? Or, if I consider someone my enemy, how can I understand that person more and have more compassion?
Squash/pumpkin/gourd. To proclaim or to announce. What do I want to be known for this year? What’s my intention for the year?
Pomegranate. Mitzvot. What acts of kindness do I want to practice in the year to come?
Apples dipped in honey. To have a sweet New Year. What sweetness and blessings do I want?
Meat from animal head (cow tongue) or head of lettuce. Leadership. Where do I want to lead this year? What leadership skills do I want to improve and what actions can I take to enhance those skills?
Fish/Lungs/Popcorn. Lightness. What practices can I implement to give me peace of mind, to have more playfulness in the year to come, and to connect to my inner light?
As Rosh Hashanah approaches, we wish each other a shana tova umetuka, a sweet New Year. It has been a difficult year for many of us, but perhaps there has also been light and sweetness among the struggles. If I have learned anything from this pandemic, it is to find the sweetness in difficult times, to find the blessings in everyday moments, and to appreciate the finer things in life: a warm hug, a beautiful sunset, and of course, the sweetness in our tradition.
Header image design by Grace Yagel. Original illustration by art-skvortsova/Getty images.