When we adopted our kids, they were already 6 and 7, and we were scared of Christmas. I’m Jewish and my wife’s an atheist, so celebrating Christmas was out of the question but, improbably, we’d adopted a couple of blue bloods — they had ancestors on the Mayflower — out of the foster system.
Our kids had had big Christmasses with lots of presents from relatives who, perhaps, gave expensive gifts to assuage their guilt about not offering them a home. And since the kids, a biological brother and sister, had come to stay with us late in the year, we didn’t want the beginning of the adoption to be steeped in disappointment.
We also didn’t want to employ that old American standby of making Hanukkah into a gift-giving festival. So we came up with an idea that I cannot justify as being more theologically correct than observing a secular Christmas or a Christmassy Hanukkah, but which, nonetheless, suited us better.
We came up with the idea of giving gifts on Rosh Hashanah. This plan had the twin virtues of being something made-up special in just the way that adoptive families are made-up special, and also of being something we could implement soon after the kids arrived, so we could start off family life right away with a big celebration, instead of waiting for a big disappointment.
We did the traditional thing of welcoming the New Year with a shared repast of apples dipped in honey, and it was all the sweeter because the apples came from our own orchard. We’re not farmers, but we’re blessed to live on a beautiful 16-acre farmette in central New York. People often buy cars for more money than we paid for our little fixer-upper.
It didn’t even matter to the real estate market that water, the world’s most precious resource, is abundant on our property. But it does matter to our Rosh Hashanah story, because on Rosh Hashanah morning we walked down a trail to the creek that runs year round across our land.
We didn’t know any of the official songs you’re supposed to sing on a tashlich walk (the kids eventually learned some), so we sang old standards: barroom songs, show tunes and “Yellow Submarine.” Then we sat beside the water and each one in turn told what they’d done that they regretted over the past year, and we all got up and threw lint into the water.
So much for any semblance of Orthodoxy, because at that point my wife stood up and said, “What’s that I hear?”
I asked the kids, “Does that sound like a moose?” and walked back up the trail to “check.” When I came back, I announced that we had been visited by the Rosh Hashanah Moose, and the kids went scampering up the trail to see what presents had been left for them hanging in the trees.
Okay, it was hokey, and the Moose was too much like Santa Claus, but it worked well for us, and the kids looked forward to it every year. It worked so well, in fact, that one year I had the bright idea to spice up the act a little by buying a moose call.
This was before the Internet, so the only place to shop for one was at our local gun store. I walked in, and there, amidst an endless array of firearms, were a couple of geezers swapping stories with the proprietor.
“Would you happen to have a moose call?” I asked jauntily. There was dead silence until the proprietor finally gave me a “no,” adding that he had turkey and duck calls if I’d like to see those.
“Do you know anywhere I can get one?” I asked. “No,” he said again, and the geezers shook their heads, too.
I’ll never forget the looks on their faces as they stared at me and tried to discern whether it was really possible that the paunchy, aging hippie before them could really be a great white hunter about to embark on a quest for exotic game.
It’s a happy memory for me about how things aren’t always what they seem, and about how having a family will lead you down many a strange, rich road. But sometimes I also remember that gun shop when I’m working with homeless people, because, after all, I wouldn’t have had those tashlich walks if I hadn’t had a home which, quite literally, opened its door for them.
In fact, I wouldn’t have had the kids either, because you can’t adopt without a home, and because homeless people often have their children ripped away from them. The child protective authorities routinely believe that it’s better to be lonely and scared out of your wits with strangers in the foster system than sharing the vicissitudes of poverty with a parent who loves you dearly.
Seeing as how Judaism is a religion that sanctifies life in this world, I could probably come up with lots of reasons why Rosh Hashanah is a good time to think about homelessness and our individual responsibilities toward humanity as a whole. But I don’t really think of Rosh Hashanah as a holiday about social activism. (Passover, of course, is another matter). I think of it as a time for the soul, and that’s where I really see the connection between Rosh Hashanah, homelessness and my best time in a gun shop.
When homeless people ask us for money or food or a chance, we’re often encouraged to be suspicious. We’re supposed to squint and wonder if they’re just using us by playing on our sympathies.
Are they really going to hunt moose? Well, maybe not. Maybe you can’t always tell what a person is after. Maybe they’re after bigger game.
Jeremy Weir Alderson is founder and director of the Homelessness Marathon, an annual national radio broadcast focusing on poverty and homelessness in America.