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Shy Ashkenazi on Thursday, November 21, 2019

Tradition- Tradition! Tradition! (Fiddler on the Roof)

It has been a little more than two months since I arrived here in Northern Virginia, and it’s the first time ever that I was not home for the high holidays.

This time of year, a time of family and celebrations is also one filled with traditions. And yes, Jewish people have celebrated the holidays for thousands of years with the same intention all over, but being in different parts of the world, different communities, and different families, we each have our own unique traditions.

Sephardic Jews have the tradition of reciting short blessings called Yehi Ratzon (may it be to your will). Each of these blessings is connected to certain food and a blessing that G-D will be willing to give all that we ask for in this new year.

To prepare for Rosh Hashanah, my mother starts cooking and prepping a week ahead of time, making sure that she has all the necessary ingredients. She cuts and fries the thin slices of pumpkin, which in Arabic is called Kara. It sounds like the Hebrew word that means to tear, as in the blessing asking G-D to tear away all the bad wishes our enemies have for us. This dish is my favorite, filling the house with smells of frying and cooking, letting me know that the holiday will soon be upon us.

On the festive dinner table, there are also apples and honey, the pomegranate, dates, spinach latkes, leek latkes, small beans, and a fish head, all representing different wishes we have for ourselves for the new year. And then comes the food, which is always SO good!

Since I couldn’t be with my family this year, luckily, we live in a time in which technology is amazing and allows us to basically be virtually anywhere. I made sure to video chat with my family when they were around the table so that I could join them for the blessings. As always, I could feel the joy and commotion — everyone chatting between each blessing, my nieces grabbing the phone to say hi to me, my parents, my siblings, and the guests all waving hello and sharing short stories with me. It was as close as it gets to being there with them.

Luckily, I was surrounded by a warm and caring community here in NOVA and had the pleasure of attending a lovely and fun holiday dinner with great people, wishing one another Shanah Tovah, sharing stories and laughing around the table.

And then comes Yom Kippur. The greatest question that I asked myself was – how would it feel to drive on that day as I made my way to shul? In Israel, a few days before Yom Kippur, you can tell it is coming just by seeing people (mostly children) starting to make sure that their bicycles are intact. You see, in Israel, all the roads are cleared of cars on Yom Kippur.  Since the only cars you might see are emergency vehicles, children and teens (mostly) use that time to raid the roads and ride all around without fear of being hit by cars. But here, the roads are filled with vehicles just like any other day.  Not living within walking distance of a shul, I had to make the choice, for the first time in my life, to drive on this holy day. I got in the car, waited to see if I felt weird or maybe feel like it wasn’t right. The first thing I did was to make sure the radio was off.

As I was driving, it was getting warmer and warmer. I decided to not open a window or turn the AC on, as it is a day that we are commanded to not use everyday pleasures. That was my small way to keep the observance I am used to.

I was excited to get to shul and take part in the services, all the while asking myself how it would feel, being so very different than what I am used to. I had attended Shabbat services in conservative and reform synagogues before, but never on Yom Kippur. Back home, I go with my father to the local Sephardic-Orthodox synagogue, where the women sit in the balcony that is located in the back of the hall, where the Chazan has a thick accent and the tunes are mostly from North African traditions, and here I am, sitting in a Conservative – American - Ashkenazi shul. How different would it be?

I was embraced by wonderful friends and members of the community, shaking hands, chit-chatting and getting ready for prayer. Despite the tunes, the tempo, the egalitarian sitting, the feeling was pretty much the same. The sense of community and togetherness, the words, the prayers and mostly the intention, all felt familiar and comfortable. 

I was lucky enough to host a group of friends to break the fast, where I  started by introducing them to my family traditions – we first drink a tiny glass of Arak (Anis based alcoholic drink) and then eat Zeit U’Zaatar (oil and hyssop). We take a piece of bread, dip it in a bowl of olive oil, and then in a bowl of Zaatar (hyssop). We also like to add grated cheese on top. That has always been our opening dish right after the fast. I was excited to have my friends with me sharing my traditions, as we sat together to break the fast.

And then there was Sukkot. For the past 20 years (I can’t even remember how long), my father and I would build the Sukkah together. The ceremony always begins the same way – we never start when we say we will, as my father cleans the front yard to make room for the Sukkah. Then we take all the parts out of the storage space (which includes me climbing up a ladder to go through old stuff to make way to get to the Sukkah) and we build it, part by part, placing wooden beams on the top, crossing each other in order to create a strong foundation for the Schach (the roof of the Sukkah). Every year we have the same small arguments, small disagreements about how to do it, and every year we laugh about how we have the same ones every year - TRADITION! So, this year, since I’m not home, my older brother was the one to build with my father. I made sure to get reports and photos from my mother, to make sure that it all went well, and that they also had those arguments, after all – TRADITION!

I celebrated Sukkot twice at the JCC, once with members of the community and with the children in the preschool, sharing songs and stories with them. I had the pleasure of also spending the holiday with a friend and her family in their Sukkah and completed my Sukkot holiday by spending time with other friends. 

And lastly, there was Simchat Torah.  I celebrated this joyous holiday for the first time in 30 years or so and found myself dancing with the Torah in my arms. It was a great feeling to be a part of the celebration!

It seems to me like I am surrounding myself with a lot of new traditions while having the pleasure of sharing some of my old ones with the people around me.

It is the blending of these traditions that bring us all together. 


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