What Does a Holiday of Renewal Mean for One Who Is Basically New?
On an August weekend blissfully free of this summer’s scorching heat, I attended a wedding in Manhattan, the marriage of a childhood friend. The event was beautiful. My sister, her husband and my parents were all there, and while my parents played a role in the ceremony, my partner, Ian, and I were asked to be part of the community as only celebrants. In other words, we were merely expected to dress up, enjoy the food, shower the couple with well wishes and wipe away the expected tears.
Across the table from me at dinner was a resplendent woman, the wife of a man who’d been a few years behind me in high school; she was eight months pregnant and exaggeratedly luminous, infused with that peaceful buzz that some pregnant women get.
In November 2008, when I was eight months pregnant with my daughter, Orli (by then enormous, but not uncomfortably round), I was asked to interview Harvey Fierstein for a story I was working on for The New York Times. Fierstein was just finishing up his (second) reign as Edna in the Broadway hit “Hairspray.” After the show, I made my way backstage; he took one look at me and bellowed, in that famous Fierstein baritone: “Make way! This woman is carrying the hopes and dreams of her entire family!” I laughed, his understudy laughed, a stagehand laughed. It was funny because it was so true.
Now, in motherhood, I am forever aware of renewal, of change, of lifecycle events, of seasons. With Orli, we mark time differently: Her first snow! Her first time in a snowsuit! Her first time at the beach! Everything, in the age of the digital photo, is preserved from every angle.
September will mark my daughter’s second Rosh Hashanah. For lovely, blameless, if mischievous, Orli, I assume that, even if she were capable of contemplation, she would have little to contemplate from the past year. She’s a mobile, endlessly chattering toddler, very aware of herself and her parents’ presence (and even more so of our absence), but she is also, above all, primal in her needs and wants. The occasional hair-pulling incident doesn’t seem remotely resonant during a holiday season about coming to terms with a year spent lying to God, community and self and trying to expunge or repudiate those mistakes. If Orli has run into trouble, it is because her world remains wholly black and white. Everything she wants must be, by definition, hers.
Case in point: Right now, Orli seems happiest first thing in the morning when we get her from her crib and pull her back into our room and into bed with us. I often catch, at that moment, an expression on her face that seems to be joy at its purest, an unadulterated, almost beatific smile. It’s a quiet happiness that most adults spend the rest of their lives seeking by means both material and spiritual.
What, then, does a holiday about renewal mean for one who is, basically, new?
Is Orli’s role to remind us that we have a bit of that childhood ability to be satisfied within ourselves? A visible marker making us recognize that, beyond a recounting of what, in our case, we may not have done right this year, we have had so many of our needs met? In the peculiar rules of infant feeding, which include restricting honey from those younger than 1 year old, while it is not Orli’s first Rosh Hashanah, it is her first chance to partake of apples and honey. For Jews, the apple, round like the year, temporal in its longevity, doesn’t hold any of the negativity the Christian world associates with it (the Talmud doesn’t associate apples with “forbidden fruit;” that’s a relatively modern construct). Instead it represents our childlike relationship to God (the fruit on the tree begins to grow before it is protected). It is this primal (or maybe pagan) request for tangible sweetness that I suspect Orli will enjoy most.
Back at that August wedding, during dessert, my sister (also a new mother, to my 1-year-old nephew, Nathan) and I made our way over to our pregnant tablemate. Unable to restrain ourselves, we asked her all sorts of questions about the pregnancy, the anticipation of birth and her thoughts about the future. She described the same wondrous phenomenon I remembered from pregnancy: the strange way in which total strangers smile benignly at you in the street, the unsolicited advice and well-wishes, the cross-generational/class defying/transracial means in which pregnancy upends all our social conventions about privacy and space. Somehow a pregnant woman feels like one of the last truly communal responsibilities. It is, I suppose, a reflection on our own aspirations, just as our hope of happiness for the bride and groom represents not only their happiness, but also our indefatigable hope for the future, and the promise of success in relationships.
The juxtaposition of our dining companion’s fecundity and the wedding seemed to speak, auspiciously, of new beginnings, of promise. In a way, then, our joyful imagining of this stranger’s baby, due not long after Rosh Hashanah, was as much about our own hope for renewal as for her family.
Sarah Wildman writes about the intersection of culture, politics and travel for The New York Times and Politics Daily.