Ever since I was little, I have loved creating and experiencing family traditions. Take, for example, the year my family made a challah in the shape of a shofar for Rosh Hashanah; since then, we always make challah into shapes connected to other Jewish holidays. Or for Yom Kippur break fast one year, my family got a Carvel Fudgie the Whale cake and put a Polly Pocket male doll on it to represent Jonah—I insisted that this become a new family tradition, too. As a kid, I thought of traditions as a meaningful and fun way to mark special occasions. Since then, I have come to realize that traditions are more than just fun things you do as a family; they are customs that we have made our own by adding our own interests, creativity and values.
For my entire life, I have spent Erev Rosh Hashanah at my cousins’ house, and this year was no different. Like always, my mom, sisters and I spent the day baking desserts—an insane amount of sweets that everyone else thinks are crazy. The rest of the evening usually has the following elements—the women struggle with the matches a little until we finally light the candles, we eat beef cabbage soup with matzah balls (which is still one of my favorite dishes) and during dinner, we discuss a question that my cousin sent to all guests in advance. This question has us reflect on the past years and set goals for the year to come. At the end of the meal, someone always sneaks a dessert and gets caught, and our cousin packs up our favorite dishes to take home.
As I have grown up, I have been able to connect to the traditions in different ways. As a kid, I loved the songs such as “Apples Dipped in Honey.” But now, I can be an active participant in the discussions, where often times people open up about who they are and who they want to be. It is a safe space to share something personal, feel validated and get support and insight from the older generations around the table. I now also really appreciate all of the preparation that goes into making these traditions special for me. Year after year, my Rosh Hashanah experiences have been very similar, but this year was different for me.
It occurred to me that next year I would not be sitting around this table with all of my cousins, still trying to figure out how we are related. I realized that I would be in Israel, on a gap year through Young Judaea’s Year Course program, surrounded by some familiar camp friend faces, but also some new ones. Next year, my Rosh Hashanah will be different than the traditions I have followed since I was born. I realized that I am going to have to make big decisions: what values are most important for me to continue? What traditions do I want to keep from my cousins’ house, and what traditions do I want to make my own with my friends? Maybe, instead of making the desserts, I will learn how to make matzah ball soup or brisket. Will I ask my friends a question to discuss, or will we just talk about what we are excited about for the upcoming year? Will we save the leftovers for lunch tomorrow, or will we donate them to those in need?
I also wonder what Rosh Hashanah will be like in Israel. As a Jew in America, I am a minority and many of my peers are just excited to have days off from school. In Israel, however, I will be surrounded by fellow Jews celebrating Rosh Hashanah. Will this change my Rosh Hashanah experience? Will I learn new traditions that we do not do in America? Different recipes? Different songs? Are there customs in Israel that I will end up incorporating in my future Rosh Hashanah traditions?
My Jewish identity and practice only grow deeper and richer as I incorporate these traditions that connect me to my Jewish family
There are so many different ways people around the world, and even around my town, celebrate Rosh Hashanah. I have my own traditions that I love and am grateful for, but my friends also have their traditions. Next year, when we are in Israel together, we will keep some of our old traditions, adapt to new ones and create our own Rosh Hashanah dinner. Wherever I am for Rosh Hashanah in the future, I will be reminded of my past traditions. When I eat brisket, it will connect me to my cousins. When I make Rosh Hashanah desserts, it will remind me of my family, and years ahead when I incorporate a tradition from Year Course, it will connect me to my Young Judaea community and Israel. My Jewish identity and practice only grow deeper and richer as I incorporate these traditions that connect me to my Jewish family and kehillah (congregation).
Liora Reiken is a senior at White Plains High School. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.