5781: Reflections on Rosh Hashanah and RGB

I felt bad, going into Rosh Hashanah with no posts on books for the high holidays. But, I thought, it’s an unusual year. Taking a little time to reflect isn’t a bad thing. And, indeed, I went into the evening of the Jewish new year rather calmly. We didn’t have to fuss about guests or travel, so we decided to worry about other things: our house is an unqualified disaster tonight, just as it was on Friday night, but we spent Friday morning writing to friends and family and going apple picking.

Eventually we did cook. We had plenty of food, it was fine. And we knew our apples were fresh and we had something like three or four different honeys, I don’t even remember. (My husband is rather passionate about honeys. And even the Changeling tried honey this year! At age 7! Finally!) I put apples in some of our loaves of challah. It was good.

After we lit candles, we talked quietly and cheerfully about last year and next year. We talked about hopes and dreams. We talked a lot. That’s when my Changeling discovered she liked honey, so that was an enduring subject. Then on Saturday morning, Shabbat and the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we did something we haven’t done in six months: All three of us went to services together.

This, by the way, is what I thought I’d be posting about tonight. The experience, after extreme cautiousness, of going to services together for the first time in half a year. So much has been written in so many places about various religious groups being overly ambitious in reopening doors, I wanted to write a piece about how incredibly grateful I am to my congregation for their, slow, thoughtful, methodical process in reopening services. I wanted to write about how, even as cautious as I am, I felt safe there. I wanted to tell you about how privileged I feel to be a member of a small congregation with a lot of space so that they could make indoor AND outdoor services available, both to reduce crowding and make options available. The indoor services were shorter (to reduce the amount of time a group spent together in one space, even spread out carefully), and the outdoors services were a bit longer, but in the open air with only a tent overhead. I wanted to tell you about how impressed I was by the very generous approach to the 6 feet of space they took (biggest 6 feet I’ve ever seen) and how, in the outdoor section (which is where I was) they thoughtfully labelled every seat clearly so there would be no confusion about who was seated where, and no one was permitted to shift their seats– and I was unsurprised but reassured that they ensured that those who were less mobile (the elderly and those with disabilities) had the best seats and were on the smoothest, most accessible ground. It was very well done, and I felt that nothing had been overlooked.

I went in this morning cheerfully for the second day of services. The morning services went smoothly. I’m trying to think what I was thinking about– I remember thinking of how much I enjoyed praying outside under a big tent with fresh air instead of stuffiness, but that might have been earlier. Then I felt, with that instinct you get when your kid is with your spouse, that I was being looked at earnestly, so I glanced over. Sure enough, my husband was flicking his eyes to a convenient spot. I walked over, asked about my daughter. “She’s fine,” he said, “I wanted to tell you she’s fine, but also…” I froze, and not because it was cold (I’m Canadian, it was about 60 F, so 16 C, meaning everyone else was at services in puffy coats and I was in a wool sweater wondering what the fuss was about). I just had a feeling something was happening, because my husband doesn’t bring “but also” to the table if something hasn’t happened.

“Someone died.” He looked at me. “It’s not going to be good.” I managed, “Who was it?” He said, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

I have a fairly good memory in general, I never am at a loss for words, and I’m not the sort to blank out on details. But even now I’m not entirely clear on what happened next. I know I felt a blackness in my head, so maybe my vision went funny for a second. I don’t remember whether I was silent? Maybe I swore? I sort of hope I didn’t swear at services, but I could have. I know that when my head came together I said, “Baruch dayan haemet.” Then, “That’s not going to be good.” My husband nodded. He said, “Just keep it in mind as you daven.” I nodded. I walked away and sat down in my chair. I prayed.

My daughter came up to me, strangely, just as we were beginning the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. If you don’t know it, the themes, while complex, are of judgment and the little power we humans have over our own fates, though we can alter the outcome by tefilah (prayer), tshuvah (repentance), and tzedakah (charity). It seemed important, so although I could see she was ready to go, I told her I’d take her home at the end of the prayer. Then we walked home together. We read quietly until my husband came home. Then I pulled out the one book I had in the house that included anything about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

This brand new book by Sophie Blackall, If You Come to Earth, is lovely and inspiring. I just bought it last week, on Thursday. Rosh Hashanah was Friday. Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday night. And it is the only kids’ book in my house with one, tiny picture of her.

Thank heavens for Sophie Blackall. It’s a beautiful portrait, and captures her fierce intellect and dedication to her work. I pointed to the picture and told my girl about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her career, her ferocious mind and will, and the devastating loss. I told her it was going to be a messy few months, having lost someone of her stature. I said if she was interested in learning more about her, I’d be happy to get one of the many beautiful books available for kids about her life and work.

“Of course we need one! But why don’t we have one already?”

I didn’t have a great answer. I thought of Unetaneh Tokef. I sighed. “I guess I just… didn’t really believe that she could leave right now,” I thought, maybe I also said, “but human mortality doesn’t work that way.” I’m not sure what I said. I’m not sure about much. I’m not really sure how I was so unprepared, in myself, as a parent, or as a citizen.

This isn’t going to have a tidy ending. I’m not even going to give you a reading list. The books are out there– they’re easy to find, you know where to look, and I’m going to do my own research before I recommend any to you.

I’m just going to ask you: Do some thinking and reflecting, but do it with an eye towards action, please. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was, whatever else she was, active. She was fierce, and determined, and active. Think about what you can do for the sake of truth and justice– and I will think about what I can do, too.

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