Rosh Hashanah Then and Now: A Five-Year Reflection
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Rosh Hashanah Then and Now: A Five-Year Reflection

One author reflects on the past several years between her first Rosh Hashanah and the upcoming holiday.

Five years ago I attended my first Rosh Hashanah service, an occasion that also marked my debut to Shacharit–quite a weighty introduction to Jewish ritual life. Prior to this, I had met with the rabbi I was considering working with toward conversion and asked what I should expect. He cautioned me that I might find the service a challenge: ‘Don’t feel you need to be there for everything,’ he said. ‘Take a break. You may find it overwhelming.’ While his concern was merited, I did not take his advice. Instead, I attended the full service both days. Not surprisingly, the experience was not particularly spiritually uplifting or edifying for me, as most of that time was instead dedicated to futile attempts of following along in the (transliterated) machzor. 

I had met with the rabbi I was considering working with toward conversion and asked what I should expect. He cautioned me that I might find the service a challenge: ‘Don’t feel you need to be there for everything,’ he said. ‘Take a break. You may find it overwhelming.’ While his concern was merited, I did not take his advice.

I felt overwhelmed, confused, and lost in this service, mirroring how I felt about my life at the time. For the previous fifteen years, I had a single-minded career pursuit: to meticulously complete each necessary step to obtain tenure as a professor in musicology. I graduated from an elite institution with my PhD before I was 30, persisted through the harrowing academic job market to obtain my first position, and spent five years exhausting myself as I tried to balance the teaching, research and service tasks required of me as an academic. When I turned in my file, I thought that my efforts would be rewarded; certainly I could have done more–more articles, more fellowships, more achievements–but the case that I presented appeared to be sufficient to merit my promotion from non-tenured assistant professor to tenured associate. However, my calculus was wrong. My case was denied, leading to a year of uncertainty and instability. By the time I attended that first Rosh Hashanah service 15 months after the denial, all I knew was that my career path in academia had ended and I had, at best, only a hazy view of what my future could be. My life looked nothing like I had imagined it would be when I was younger: I was single, childless, and now jobless. Everything I had thought would fall into place had instead fallen apart.

What struck me most profoundly at my first Rosh Hashanah service were the stories of childless women integrated so thoroughly into the ritual. The parshah opens with the statement ‘And God remembered Sarah’ (Genesis 21:1) as it tells of the miraculous conception of Isaac; the haftorah recounts the story of Chana and her struggles with infertility. I was a complete novice to Judaism and only starting to find a path in this tradition, but what I discovered that day was how important the miracles of women having children in the most improbable of circumstances were–so integral that they were a crucial part of one of the most important ritual days on the calendar.

What struck me most profoundly at my first Rosh Hashanah service were the stories of childless women integrated so thoroughly into the ritual. The parshah opens with the statement ‘And God remembered Sarah’ (Genesis 21:1) as it tells of the miraculous conception of Isaac; the haftorah recounts the story of Chana and her struggles with infertility. I was a complete novice to Judaism and only starting to find a path in this tradition, but what I discovered that day was how important the miracles of women having children in the most improbable of circumstances were–so integral that they were a crucial part of one of the most important ritual days on the calendar. At that service on that day, it seemed impossible to me that my life could be put back together or that I could find stability after the disorientation that followed my tenure denial. But in those readings I discovered that even in seemingly hopeless places, there can be room for hope.

Now I am approaching Rosh Hashanah from a very different place, with a new career in place and my conversion complete. Unlike my first Shacharit, many of the words that I will say as part of the service are now part of my daily practice and the structure of the ritual is no longer a mystery. I still have aspects of my life that I wish were different: I remain single and childless, but I take comfort that I have found a tradition that has preserved how integral these concerns have been to women for millennia. More importantly, I see in these texts a crucial reminder that even in the darkest of places and times, unexpected miracles can happen.

 

Zoë Lang is an active member of the Cambridge, MA Jewish community and the special events coordinator for the Cambridge-Somerville Open Beit Midrash. She holds a PhD from Harvard University and currently works as a software engineer for a publishing company.

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