High Holidays at home — it’s not an easy prospect.
Small suppers are replacing extended family gatherings. The blasts of the shofar are sounding at a distance. For many Conservative and Reform Jews, the most important services of the year will take place in the living room. Whether you open your house to the hordes on Rosh Hashanah or have yet to master the art of assembling a Yom Kippur spread without snacking (anyone? just me?), planning for this year’s restricted festivities might be making you downcast.
That’s how I felt — until I called up seven Jewish lifestyle luminaries, who bombarded me with tips on transforming even the smallest, darkest, and most toy-cluttered homes into spaces for prayer, reflection and celebration. I emerged from these conversations dazzled by proximity to such wisdom and determined to make this season as special as any other.
Not sure how to plan for the season at home? We asked interior designers, entertaining experts and a very hip rabbi.
Here’s what they had to say.
Start now. OK, maybe not this minute. But you should put on your interior designer hat before it’s time to put on your kippah for services. “It’s probably hard to turn an apartment into something that feels sacred if you wake up that morning and think, ‘OK, I need to bring God into this space,’” Lowin said.
Recreate your favorite parts of synagogue. Let’s face it: your house is never going to look exactly like your childhood synagogue. But you can recreate the sanctuary feeling by focusing on small elements. For example, Lowin said, if you love the piano melodies your synagogue plays before services, find a similar recording and play it in your home before or after services.
Mix and match. You can apply this exercise to any place that makes you feel “connected to the divine,” Lowin said. For example, if you feel most reflective at your favorite yoga studio, consider sitting on a mat or cushion during services.
Embrace the easy win. Don’t create more stress for yourself. Choose projects that you can accomplish. For interior decorating novices, Lowin suggested these customizable Rosh Hashanah palette cards that use colors to summon up holiday memories, reflection place cards to get post-service discussion started, and this festive garland to decorate a round challah — which, Lowing pointed out (and this inexpert baker can confirm), is pretty much “the easiest bread to bake.”
Make an altar. The spiritual lodestone of Doppelt’s tiny apartment is the altar in the corner of her living room. “It’s decorated with pictures of my travels, a porcupine quill, feathers and seashells, postcards from when I lived in India, Dead Sea salt and notes from loved ones,” she said. Try it yourself by gathering mementos and laying them out wherever you’ll be streaming services or celebrating — no purchases necessary.
Bring nature inside. “Go outside, grab some leaves or grass,” and there’s your holiday decor, Doppelt told me. But what if the jungle outside your home is a concrete one? Not to worry, she said. Open all your windows to air out your house. Burn candles with your favorite outdoor scents or buy an essential oil diffuser. Here’s a list with options to suit various budgets). Consider stocking up on houseplants, like bamboo, that can naturally improve the air quality in your living space. You don’t have to be living a cottagecore fantasy to open your home to the natural world.
Find more mindfulness on Doppelt’s Instagram.
Function over form. Barnes said she already knows where she’ll stream services this year — her daughter’s playroom. “It’s not everyone’s calm, but it’s my calm, because [my daughter] gets free rein and I can have some time to focus on something else,” Barnes said. When arranging your house, the most important part is what will work for your family — not what looks best on Instagram.
Food = crafts. When you’re done making napkin rings, hand the apples over to the kids. Barnes suggested slicing apples in half and using them as “stamps” (you can find a detailed apple-stamping tutorial here to allow those too small for services to engage with the holiday.
Rely on objects. It’s no surprise that Ezra, a Judaica designer, is a firm believer in the power of physical objects to aid spiritual ritual. Filling your home sanctuary with ritual objects “sets a tone,” she said. “It says that these rituals, this story, this lineage is so important to me.” Judaica doesn’t just help adults get in the mood; it can also help children engage with core High Holiday teachings in a year when they won’t be getting that reinforcement at Hebrew school. For example, Ezra suggested, you can teach kids about charity by giving them a tzedakah box. But, she added, don’t let the little kids role-play Rosh Hashanah with your most prized possessions: Buy them a play kit instead.
Think outside the pew. You can’t recreate synagogue seating in your house, and you shouldn’t try. “This is your opportunity to really think about a space that resonates with you,” said Ezra, one that lets you “have an intimate and honest conversation with Hashem.” For her, that means floor cushions arranged in a circle so her family can easily interact during services. A good starting point for room rearrangements: try to face east, the direction of Jerusalem and the orientation of most synagogues.
Lean into nostalgia. “My mom always had flowers in the house on Rosh Hashanah, and whenever I smell those flowers I think of my home,” Ezra said. “So I always try to get those specific flowers.” If you’re missing out on larger family gatherings, incorporate the elements you miss most in your at-home celebrations.
Mix high and low. It’s great to bring out family heirlooms to aid holiday celebrations — but that doesn’t preclude you from taking advantage of more prosaic supplies. “I have really beautiful candlesticks that my mother-in law-gifted me for my bat mitzvah — but I’m mixing them with tea lights from IKEA,” Eriko Posner said.
Less is more. Filling your house with flowers is all well and good, but the most important thing is clearing away everything that reminds you of everyday life. Even if you’re just streaming services at your desk, remove calendars, notebooks, and everything else that reminds you of work. “I’m a student of Japanese tea ceremony, and my tea teacher always says that when you have a clear space, you have a clear mind,” she said.
Bring out your best. The candlesticks you keep in storage? The wedding china that’s not dishwasher safe? Now is the time to dust it off, said Greenstein. It’s an easy way to elevate the occasion without buying anything new. Check out Greenstein’s tablescaping primer for ideas on elegant, no-fuss centerpieces.
Food = decor. How does Greenstein begin a new decorating project? “I’m very much into seasonality,” she said. “I look into what’s in season and what those colors are.” That approach jives well with the High Holidays, since the signs and symbols of the harvest — apples and crusty bread — are also the core foods of Rosh Hashanah. A bowl of apples makes a no-fuss centerpiece, and round challahs are beautiful to look at even before the meal begins. You can also plan crafts around those foods — think apple-shaped napkin rings.
Get your fix of dog pics, entertainment tips and (of course!) cocktails on Greenstein’s award-winning blog Caramelized.
Play musical chairs (or couches). “We invite people to physically change their space,” said Minnen of OneTable’s approach to High Holidays at home. Consider rearranging your furniture for the duration of the season — even facing a different direction as you sit on the couch can whisk you out of the everyday.
Get lit. Most homes rely heavily on overhead light fixtures, said Minnen. But as we all know after five months of working from home, that kind of lighting isn’t quite atmospheric. Spruce things up with some inexpensive tea lights, which can transform your space. An even easier lighting hack? For a cozy glow during at-home services, turn off all the lamps in the room where you’re sitting and let light filter in from the hallway or a nearby room.
OneTable has augmented its Shabbat programming with a whole new website oriented around pandemic-era Jewish ritual. Visit Here For for Elul crafting projects and other ideas to get you pumped for pandemic-era High Holidays.
Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @katz_conn.
Jewish lifestyle luminaries: how to host, pray at home