Home (And Away) For The Holidays

Home (And Away) For The Holidays

Israelis here launch ‘100 Chairs’ project to fight off Rosh HaShanah loneliness.

“Yo, Israel,” called Colombia, “isn’t tonight some big Jewish holiday?”

“It’s Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year’s eve,” I shouted over the din of the drums.

“Then why aren’t you in a synagogue, celebrating with your people?” inquired Yemen.

“You’re my people now,” I sighed, setting down my darbuka. The drumming sputtered for a moment, then continued without me.

This was September 2006, my third month away from Israel. Earlier that evening my parents called to wish me a Shana Tova, with the entire family chiming in — 22 people, 5,676 miles away. I told them I was celebrating the holiday with friends, which was half true.

My friends were a random pack of drummers, dancers and drifters that I met in Union Square, where they used to play on warm nights. We were all foreigners, speaking different languages, sometimes having a hard time pronouncing each other’s names (hence the geographical nicknames). We had in common music, not-belonging, and an unspoken vow to help fend off the loneliness.

“They say the way you spend the evening of Rosh HaShanah is how you will spend the entire year,” I told Yemen. “I’d rather be spending it with my friends than celebrating it in a synagogue full of strangers.”

Colombia quit drumming and sat down beside me, patting my back sympathetically. Georgia handed me a paper bag containing a bottle to drown my troubles. They all knew how it felt to be far from home on the holidays.

It was Abe (short for Ibrahim), a New-York born Palestinian who never got over the feeling of being chronically displaced, who broke the melancholy spell. “Tell us what you need,” he stood up. “We’ll celebrate your Sha-na-na-na thing with you, right here, right now. You ain’t alone, Israel!”

The holidays are the hardest time for any new immigrant, the time when the sense of familiarity and belonging are most achingly missed. Of course, times are a lot easier now, with Facebook and Meetup bringing common interest groups a mere keyword and a click away. And they’re a lot easier for Israeli immigrants in particular, who, over the past few years evolved from disparate clusters into an actual community. New York of today is in the midst an Israeli renaissance, with Israeli-related groups, networks, programs, services and activities proliferating like never before. There is even a Moatza (a local council, in Hebrew), a new central organization working to coordinate the community’s different facets. Today, come the holidays, Israelis have plenty of Israeli options to choose from.

Still, says Nissim Sade, “When I realized that for the first time in my life I won’t be home with my family for the holidays, it was pretty rough.”

Sade, a 46-year-old communication and leadership consultant, hails from a family of Libyan Jews who have been practicing their own particular holiday customs — with special foods, blessings and stories—for generations.

“On the second night, instead of the head of a fish, there would be an entire head of a lamb on the table,” he describes. Alongside the more common dishes of apples and pomegranates, there would be leek fritters, savory pumpkin pies, plates with olives and berries. The entire table would be crowded with various dishes; before eating, his father would slowly and meticulously explain the meaning of each one. His mother would begin preparations seasons ahead of time, preserving fruit jams that could be opened only on Rosh HaShanah eve. “As a kid, I remember the anticipation building for months,” he describes. “It was a huge deal. Libyans have a unique and elaborate tradition. … I haven’t seen things done this way anywhere else.”

So when, in 2011 a change in his immigration status prevented him from going home for the holidays, Sade was initially at a loss. “I didn’t know how things are done here, or where to go,” he says. Finally he decided that instead of feeling cast out, or joining people he didn’t know and breaking a five-generation tradition, he would host the evening himself.

Sade spent the week before Rosh HaShanah on the phone, discussing recipes with his mother, and scouring the city for exotic ingredients. “There was this traditional berry I had to ask a friend to bring from Israel, and the yellow dates I couldn’t find at all. … Getting all theses things, and cooking them just right, was a lot of work.”

About 10 Americans, mostly his roommates’ friends, showed up for the dinner. Sade had an interesting time trying to explain to them the Hebrew-Arabic play on words from which each dish evolved. All in all, he says, it was a fun, memorable evening, “but today, given a choice, I know I’d prefer spending Rosh HaShanah in the company of other Israelis.”

This holiday, Sade may have his wish. “We asked ourselves, ‘What are the community needs still unanswered by the existing Israeli organizations? What do Israelis here miss the most?’ One of the most urgent things that came up was, ‘A family or a community to share the holidays with,’” says Sheli Agassi, a member of the Moatza’s social committee.

Agassi is coordinating the Moatza’s “100 Chairs” project, in which veteran Israeli families host newly arrived Israeli guests for the holidays, beginning with this Rosh HaShanah. “We reached out to all Israeli community leaders we knew of in the area and asked them to spread the word, and to help us create compatible matches,” explains Agassi. “Compliance has been astonishing.”

The final goal goes far beyond simply assuring that newcomers have a place at the holiday table. With the help of the community heads, the project strives to bring together Israelis with common interests, like having a job in the same field or kids the same age. Guests are matched with hosts of similar religious backgrounds, for example, to avoid clashes over kashrut, driving, or holiday rituals. “The more the guests and hosts have in common, the easier and more enjoyable the evening will be for everyone,” says Agassi. “Ideally, it could become the basis for a lasting friendship.”

But is this narrowing down to people who are just like us really something we should be striving for? Shouldn’t we be broadening our horizons, casting a wider net, trying to connect with the larger American — and Jewish American — society?

“We did ask ourselves that,” admits Agassi. “The answer is yes, eventually. But those just coming from Israel may want a familiar setting, somewhere that smells like home, like family. … For the first stage, it’s probably what they need.”

Probably. If such an option had existed in 2006, it likely would have saved me a year or more of blundering and disappointment, not to mention at least one ticket for loitering. But I would have also missed out on one of the most perfect New York moments of my life.

We took a short breakk to gather provision, and then we all met back in Union Square. I brought the apples and honey from Whole Foods, Marisol (Puerto Rico) brought cake, Abe a bottle of kosher wine in a paper bag and a bunch of paper cups. After a few l’chaims, we were drumming again and singing Shana Tova (which they simply sung as sha-na-na-na-na). We were soon joined by other Israelis, drawn to the familiar tune; together we said Shehecheyanu. Within the drum circle, people started to dance.

“Happy now, Israel?” Colombia shouted over the din of drums.

“I couldn’t ask for anything more,” I replied.


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