Ghosts of Rosh Hashana Past
During this time of year, new years and old years collide. Rosh Hashana is the time of reflection, the time of healing. And, by far, it is my favorite time of year.
My childhood finds its happiest moments at my grandmother’s Rosh Hashana table at lunchtime. I’ll never forget the goodies on top of her lace tablecloth – bagels and lox combined with Sephardic foods such as eggs, squash and spinach frittada and cheese-filled borekas, with the sides twisted up by Nony’s delicate fingers. My mother made the apple jelly, which is open on the table next to the traditional round challah. She made a huge batch of jelly every year and gave it only to the people she liked, from the cantor to our teachers.
Being with my grandparents made our holidays. As small children my sister, cousin and I had run of the Spanish-style duplex on Crescent Heights, where they had lived for 30 years. All the cousins make an appearance, alongside uncles and aunts, clergy and close family friends who had been around for so long you couldn’t tell whether or not they’re actually related; they all found a way to Papu and Nony’s house. It hosted the people I love the most and those who I never met. My father’s father, grandpa Saul, adored my mother’s parents and spent his last day of his life at their Rosh Hashana table. There was family history in this place that my tiny child’s body couldn’t hold up yet.
We eventually moved to Northern California, and my grandparents relocated to a Beverly Hills apartment, pristine and white as opposed to Crescent Heights’ colorful and historic charm. One Rosh Hashana, I refuse to go to temple. I’m sobbing in a pink dress with a patchwork skirt, throwing a tantrum as my father sits with me calmly. After several hours, I calm down and we go, with most of my morning spent looking at the stained glass on the ceiling of the synagogue. And, of course, we come back for lunch at my grandparents’ house.
We move back to Thousand Oaks, and I join the temple choir. I was proud to don a white robe for Rosh Hashana, but my mother hates it; it always makes us late for lunch. Eventually, I give up the choir, deciding instead to gossip with my friend Melissa in the bathroom and follow my friend Allison and her sisters around, admiring their handcrafted talits. But we always look forward to what comes after.
At 17, my sister, cousin and I become too cool for just sitting at my grandparents’ table during lunch, instead choosing to chase around our younger cousins Jonah and Hannah. After they leave, we decide to wander to the bar in the den. We’re hanging out there and I discover a pack of Viagra. At 17, I’m disgusted. But in later years, I realized how special it was that my grandparents were still so hot for each other that they were having sex into their 80s.
At 21, I go to college in Fullerton, but after services I trek up to the 10 freeway and make the drive to Beverly Hills for lunch. The dog, Lucy, is hiding under the small kitchen table, mad she got dragged into this ordeal. Nony is cooking as always, my mother helping her, and my aunt Sophie is visiting from Florida. But my Papu isn’t here entirely. A nurse is nearby at all times. His shuffling feet don’t walk as much as they used to. He can barely speak or remember anyone or anything – except the kids. He remembers his granddaughters and his great-niece and nephews, particularly two-year-old Sammy, who he adores.
It’s his last Rosh Hashana.
The venue switches. My grandmother moves from the apartment in Beverly Hills to the Jewish Home and my cousin Lorrie decides to host Rosh Hashana lunches from this point on. The transition is smooth, with bagels and lox, apple jelly and poached salmon. There are no more borekas here, but my mother makes sure to always bring some frittada. Nony sits with her sister Esther as “the kids” all sit outside in the backyard. There are several new additions to this gathering, though – my cousin Kacee as well as my soon to be ex-husband the most noteworthy.
Eventually, Nony starts to fade too, forgetful and frightened. And soon, she leaves our world of Rosh Hashana lunches. As does Esther and her family, who cut ties.
We continue on despite the changes, both good and bad. My mother still making apple jelly for the holiday and secretly slipping some to the cantor in the middle of Rosh Hashana services before we head over to Lorrie’s house. Lorrie producing a cake for my mother and my cousin Dova’s birthdays and they blow out the candles together. There is raucous conversation and laughter, along with teaching my younger cousins things we shouldn’t be even talking them about, but do anyway.
My cousin Sarah moves to Los Angeles with her family and her two young boys, followed by her parents after they retire. I divorce and come to Rosh Hashana lunches by myself again. The younger cousins who I once chased around my grandparents’ apartment in Beverly Hills head off to college. As my mother grows sick, she isn’t able to last as long at the lunches; she gets tired and needs to rest, and the drive back to Thousand Oaks is long enough without it.
Two years ago, I’m mad at my mother. I’m standing in her kitchen and want her to teach me how to make apple jelly for the holiday so we can bring it to Lorrie’s house. She doesn’t want to put in the work to make it, with sterilizing the jars and grating the apples. I tell her I’m happy to do everything if she just tells me what to do. She still says no.
“Mom, you have to pass it on!” I yell at her. “You have to teach me, because one day you’re not going to be around to do it and the tradition will die!”
That was my mother’s last Rosh Hashana. I really didn’t want to be right in that argument. I still don’t.
The Rosh Hashana lunch after her death, and my mother seems to haunt Lorrie’s house. I can see it my cousin’s face; the agony of my mother’s absence is in her every movement. The house seems to be emptier without her presence.
Yet the kids sit outside, joined now by my friend Gary, who my mother treated like a son. And we find laughter, tell stories, eat to our hearts’ content. The food isn’t the exact same as my grandmothers’ table, but the people are just as good. My cousin Amy laughs as her fiancé Kevin makes corny dad jokes. I ruffle Sammy’s hair and ask him all about school and politics. My sister enjoys being with the family away from Kansas. And somewhere in that crowd was my mother’s ghost, because even in death her spirit wouldn’t be able to bear missing a Rosh Hashana lunch.
Yesterday, I stood in the kitchen, preparing for my dad’s and my Rosh Hashana dinner on Wednesday night. My father came and looked at the baking sheet with raw borkeas on them, with the twisted up sides made by my less delicate fingers. His eyes sparkled with tears – even just for a minute, my mother, grandmother, grandfather, and even his own father were alive again in his kitchen. He missed them. I missed them. We were both lonely without them, yet continued to fulfill our family traditions and share them with the people we love.
During Rosh Hashana, we ask in temple to be inscribed into the Book of Good Life. But that book sometimes needs to be pulled off the shelf and re-read. We need to tell the stories again – the good ones, the funny ones, the sad ones, the embarrassing ones. All of the stories need to find a way to our lips, and laughter should roll off our tongues. And they need to be told to the ones who remember them and the people who somehow wander into our lives and homes, becoming our family.
That way, we’re all at the table together, tied by tradition, and not even death can separate us. And that is the best wish I can give for the Jewish New Year.