If you live in a Jewish neighborhood like I do, you may periodically hear the wailing of a shofar in the distance in the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah. It is a common daily practice among Orthodox Jews, a reminder that the High Holidays are not far off. The evening air, at one time humid and dry, is now refreshingly cool. The streets, only just filled with children’s laughter and splashing of water in backyard swimming pools, are quieter.
It is that time of the year when the air I breathe becomes my childhood memories, and I inhale the nostalgia of the Septembers I spent on Satmar Drive, where I lived growing up in Kiryas Joel, in upstate New York. The days brought the smell of honey wafting through open kitchen windows as the neighborhood girls and I walked home from the bus stop on the corner of Forest and Acres Road, skipping in our navy-blue flat Boutaccellis and thick navy stockings, our short hair bobbing in the wind. The smell of honey meant Rosh Hashanah. It meant teshuvah, or repentance, and kreplach, the traditional Jewish dumplings, and awkward phone calls to friends to beg forgiveness for talking loshon hora — the halachic term for derogatory speech about another person behind their backs and other wrongdoings.
My mother, a balebuste, or homemaker, extraordinaire, had her September planned to a tee, from the endless polishing of the 12-candle laykhter, or candelabra, to the menu for Sukkot, on which she always tried to start at least a month in advance. Even before we went shopping for school shoes at Schnitzer, or got our heads checked for lice and nits by Mrs. Polatsek on Hayes Court in early September, the pantry in my mother’s house held at least two big bottles of honey. As the month progressed and Rosh Hashanah neared, the downstairs freezer would slowly fill with bags of honeyed delicacies: honey cookies and cake cut in quarters, sealed in doubly knotted storage bags to keep away the children’s hands.
The smell of honey is not the only thing I remember from those days — I also remember fear. Hashem was going to write us into either the “white” or “black” book, more commonly known as the Book of Life and the Book of Death. He was going to judge our every word and action from the past year — from the friends we had hurt to a flash of collar bone that inadvertently showed — and determine who shall die, and by what manner, and who shall live, and under which circumstances. To give or take life and how to go about doing it was up to His discretion. The job for us mortals was to repent, nonstop, from the moment the month of Elul started until after Yom Kippur, the final and ultimate Day of Atonement. We were to beseech Hashem to forgive us for speaking loshon hora, disrespecting our parents, being lax with our top buttons and talking loudly on the streets or around men.
But repentance alone wasn’t enough; we had to drastically improve our ways, be more conscientious with fellow classmates and work on our tznius, modesty. It wasn’t unusual for girls to make tznius-related vows and exchange them in letters: to wear thicker stockings, to never — ever! — wear eye makeup, to lengthen their skirts and tighten their collars. I myself made heartfelt promises to my best friend at the time: to never wear mascara or dress fashionably like my older sisters. I would write the note at home on lined paper, seal it in an envelope addressed to “Dearest So and So” and drop it on her desk before davening at school. The next morning, I would find a sealed envelope on my desk. Not only girls were in on this; nearly every living soul grew somber in September in hopes of impressing upon Hashem his worthiness to be written into the Book of Life.
Long before candle lighting for the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the phone rang constantly. Aunts and cousins, neighbors and friends, called to wish my mother a git gebentsht yor, a good, blessed year. These wishes also reverberated throughout the homes and streets of our little village. Everyone stopped for blessings. The corner of Garfield Road and Hayes Court, right outside the colossal Satmar synagogue of Kiryas Joel, was teeming with men in black bekitches, the long Hasidic jackets traditionally worn on the Sabbath and on holidays, and shtreimels, the tall, dark-brown hats made of fur. Men were shaking hands and reciting blessings, while women hurried by with strollers and young ones in tow on the other side of the street. Some women waited for their husbands, at a distance, to accompany them to their mothers and in-laws. My brothers and sisters came, too, with their cute children, all two or nine of them in matching yontif, or holiday, attire, to give our parents their blessings.
Every single year, all the children, and the blessings, made for the year’s most intimate and spectacular night. The atmosphere was cautiously festive, yet solemn. The only time I showed any affection to my father was on Rosh Hashanah eve, when I’d recite the obligatory male blessing for health and life, and I’d lift his hand, as was the custom in many families, and ever so lightly peck it. He, in turn, would hold my hand and reciprocate with the female blessing, looking at me intently — an expression if not exactly of love, then of warmth and kindness, an emotion hard to come by from my father.
The next morning we all woke at the crack of dawn to confuse the suten, Satan. Sleeping in meant the potential of sleeping through your heavenly judgment, and no one dared to take that risk. Girls stayed home to watch the younger children, while their mothers went to synagogue. It was the only time, other than Yom Kippur, that the women’s section of the synagogue was filled to the brim. As one of the youngest in the family, I would walk to one of my sisters and relieve them of their motherly duties so that they could go pray for their families. Mothers belonged in synagogue, we were told. I’d feed the children honey cake and diaper the baby and pray and sway in my little siddur. I would take the children outside to play and, prayer book in hand, locate a wall facing Jerusalem for the standing prayers and beat my fist to my heart, as is the custom during certain portions of the prayers on Yomim Noraim, or the High Holidays. This was a heartfelt symbol of repentance for the numerous sins I may or may not have committed.
We ate four meals — one on each night, and one at lunchtime, after musef, the additional morning service recited on the Sabbath and on holidays. We dipped our challah and apple in honey, and ate zise meyern, carrots simmered in honey, to signify our wish to be blessed with a sweet and healthy new year.
These sentiments followed me in my new life. Rosh Hashanah is filled with honey and blessings, perhaps of a different kind, but the portentous cloud — the deep fear of Hashem’s ire for the sins I may have committed and would potentially mean being written into the Book of Death — is gone; I prefer celebrating life.
Frimet Goldberger is a frequent contributor to the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @FrimetG