Thursday, September 21, 2006

Shana Tova

Shana Tova (Shana = year, Tova = good)

Friday night begins the Jewish New Year. Israel’s radio talk show hosts are busy interviewing everyone from Tarot card analysts to Rabbis seeking the right balance for their broadcasts.

New Year in Hebrew is Rosh Hashana. Rosh = head in Hebrew, Ha = the and Shana = year. All together it’s the Head of the Year, i.e. New Year, just as Rosh Chodesh is Head of the Month.

Traditionally Rosh Hashana is a time for reflection, soul-searching, making right as much as you can that you’ve done wrong. In the Oriental (Sephardi) tradition, “Slichot” (forgiveness) prayers are said every morning from Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, until the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Tishri, which is the Yom Kippur, the Hebrew Day of Atonement.

In Jerusalem religiously observant men rise from their beds in the middle of the night, and show up for Shlichot prayers by about 3:30 AM. The mournful crying to God goes on for as much as an hour, then early morning prayers are said as the sun rises. Afterwards, the faithful leave synagogue and maybe grab a bit to eat before going to work.

A friend asked when these men have time to sleep. The answer is, they don’t. The slichot prayers are a form of flagellation. Suffering comes with the territory around this time of the year. Ashkenazi Jews, those of European origin, don’t begin the slichot prayers until the Saturday night before New Year. The first prayers are usually at a reasonable hour, like 11:00 PM; or 12:30 for those more inclined to sleep deprivation.

The suffering that goes on makes those doing penitence ready for the end of Yom Kippur. After six weeks, for some, of the middle-of-the-night spiritual purification rituals, Succot, the joyous Festival of the Booths, comes as a welcome relief.

In Jerusalem the truly devout begin constructing their Succot even before New Year. But the sounds of hammers pounding in nails are common as soon as the Yom Kippur fast is over. A tradition states that one should begin building the Succa no later than the night after Yom Kippur. Really religious men eat and sleep in these booths for 8 days.

Living in Israel one gets an entirely different perspective on the Jewish holidays than one gets abroad. In Israel these are national holidays. Banks, stores, the post office, public transportation, restaurants, movie theaters, all close. Israel shuts down. Some traffic can be found on the roads, some gas stations are open, but most people are on holiday.

On Yom Kippur even those secular Israelis stay off the roads. If you can imagine an entire city like Tel Aviv or Jerusalem with no traffic whatsoever, you’ve pictured Erev Yom Kippur (Erev = the evening). Kids traditionally ride their bikes, or their skateboards, on the empty streets. The High Holidays can’t be avoided in Israel. They’re in the face of everyone who lives here. If you want to forget them entirely, you have to leave the country. And many Israelis do.

Many Israelis simply ignore the religious aspects of the holidays and take off on vacation. The Sinai peninsula became a popular venue during the time Israel occupied that hunk of desert and Red Sea shore. When Israel gave the Sinai back to Egypt in exchange for the historic peace agreement, Israelis continued to travel to the Sinai for their holidays. The practice continues today, albeit with certain trepidation, since an Al Queda cell is reportedly active in the Sinai. Over the last few years’ tourist sites were hit by terrorists’ bombs in the Sinai. But as an Israeli couple, traveling in Thailand told a reporter last night when asked about the apparent coup d’etat, “we’re used to action.” Most Israelis don’t heed the warnings not to travel to the Sinai.

Others find themselves in nearby Greece, or Turkey. Some take off for Europe. A television report said as many as 60,000 Israelis will be traveling abroad this weekend. According to the Jerusalem Post over 520,000 Israelis will travel abroad between September and the end of October. Even religious Jews get away. The newspapers offer kosher vacations in Italy, Prague, or London. Because of it’s tiny size Israelis claim they need to get away to breath once in a while. These holidays provide them with an opportunity.

It is well known in Israel that nothing gets done on the cusp of the High Holidays, until the end of Succot. The refrain “After the holidays,” is the one everyone hears when asking when something will be finished, when a meeting is possible, when things can be fixed. Israelis joke that the only time anything is actually done in Israel is from Succot until Passover, during the winter months. Before that it’s “Chofesh HaGadol” (Chofesh = free, Ha = the, Gadol =big) or summer vacation, and then The Holidays (Ha Chagim).

Why super-financier and billionaire Warren Buffet would invest $4 billion in Iscar, an Israeli company, and claim the company is a great investment, stumped Israel watchers. Buffet did point out that much of Iscar’s production and business is abroad. It was his first trip to Israel. Luckily he didn’t come during the Succot holiday or no one would have been around.

We are now approaching the year 5767 in the Hebrew calendar. How can the world only be 6,000 years old? It isn’t, according to religious scientists. A day in God’s world may be a million years, so how you count is important. As Einstein would say, in simple terms, time moves at different speeds depending on circumstance, mass, and energy. Or to put it another way, you can believe what you want and someone will find a way to prove you’re right.

Religion isn’t for everyone. George Bernard Shaw said other than the fact the Egyptians figured out the movement of the sun so they could regulate their prayers, and make a calendar he found little to substantiate the great interest in religion. He also didn’t care much for religious people, who he reportedly thought were usually not worthy of great respect.

However blasphemous he appeared to be at the time, when one looks around at the death and destruction caused by religion, and the dispute over which God, or set of dogmas are those with the Holy blessing, one can tend to agree with Shaw.

Shiite and Sunni Moslems are at each other’s throats over their interpretation of what Mohammed did or didn’t say; the Protestants and Catholics aren’t far behind. The Buddhists and Hindus hold their own in the hatred department, and let’s not forget the Jews. Sephardim get up for slichot prayers in the middle of the night for six-weeks, not like their lazy Ashkenazi cousins.

Some orthodox Jews don’t honor the kasruth of other orthodox Jews. All sort of little dramas play out. Perhaps that’s why Israel only existed as a unified country for about 40 years during its thousand-year presence in Israel from the time of King David until the destruction of the Second Temple.

But that period is still etched into the Jewish psyche as if it were yesterday. It is the goings on in the First and Second Temples that we commemorate during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is the Exodus that we commemorate with Succot, the Festival of the Booths, when Jews lived in their makeshift structures as they traversed the desert on their way to the Promised Land. It is Simchat Torah (Simchat = happiness, Torah = the Bible, more or less) that celebrates when Moses received the tablets with the Ten Commandments and came down to the multitude gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai.

The Jewish people in Israel are locked into the history of their people and their land. The Bible even declares when and how that Jews are to observe the holidays of Rosh Hashana, and the fast of Yom Kippur, and the holiday of Succot. The Bible talks about the Promised Land, promised to the Jewish People.

Only problem is others now think the land is theirs. Bit of a conundrum, that. These others claimants however, don’t have the Bible to back them up, just olive trees they’ve grown, and crops they’ve planted. Bring up the Bible to them, and they literally wave it away as ancient history that no longer applies. In the next breath they may start quoting Mohammed to you, and how the Jews are on Holy Arab land; but what’s a little confusion when you’re talking about religion. Faith is what counts.

So as we cruise into the new Jewish year, let us all hope and pray, if you pray that is, that this year will bring peace and prosperity to all the people of the earth. That the crazies don’t decide to kill a few hundred million innocent people in the name of the God they think would condone such a thing. Let’s hope that this year more cures are found for more diseases to relieve the pain and suffering of more people. Let’s hope that alternative energy sources are found so that oil can be left to bubble in the ground not brought out to dirty the world while making ridiculously rich people feel they can keep financing terror. Let’s hope that someone discovers the way to actually reach God’s ear, not just talk at Him, and convince Him that we’ve had enough misery, tragedy, and hatred, that the time for peace on earth is long overdue, and it’s time He realized it. And if, as some believe He’s not really up there, then whoever’s running this experiment should fess up.