I picked up the brisket from the butcher Friday. It was a lot smaller than our normal Rosh Hashana brisket. That hunk of meat would weigh in between eight and ten pounds. It would be a centerpiece of a meal for some three dozen seniors, their children and grandchildren. This year the smaller brisket will suffice for Gilda and me, and perhaps another couple who will brave celebrating Jewish New Year’s eve with us two Fridays from now.
During normal times the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana would be filled with controlled, sometimes frenzied, preparations.
Gilda would be cooking, baking, freezing, brisket and chicken, noodle puddings, challahs and matzo ball soup, along with vegetarian soups and dishes like kasha for the vegans among the family and friends who would sit around extended tables in our dining room and part of our living room.
It was for just such communal gatherings—our children and grandchildren in from Massachusetts and Nebraska, my brother and sister-in-law up from Maryland, our niece’s family back from four years in Singapore and now just an hour away in New Jersey, Gilda’s brother and our daughter-in-law’s sister trekking up from New York City, along with close friends, their offspring and grandchildren from Westchester—that we enlarged our home 19 years ago.
In the week before Rosh Hashana I would set up the tables, placing 42-inch-wide pressed-wood sections atop folding tables so they would have uniform height and width. Each table setting would be 19 inches apart. A tight squeeze, but tolerable for one meal, once a year.
Children and grandkids now outnumber their parents by a near two to one ratio. We seat 24 of the younger generations in the dining room, 13 seniors in the living room. Though it is cramped, we never say no to any late addition of friend or family, following a rule passed down by my mother when similarly confronted by unexpected guests. She would say, “We’ll just throw another cup of water into the soup.”
This is not a normal time. COVID-19 has robbed us of holiday traditions. We won’t be going to synagogue. Too risky to be around even the limited number permitted in an enclosed space. Where once thousands gathered, perhaps a hundred will congregate. A streaming service is planned for those staying home.
I spent part of Saturday, two weeks ahead of Rosh Hashana, listening to a CD, “Yontef!,” Yiddish for holiday. The CD is a compilation of High Holiday prayers produced by Cantors Jacob Ben-Zion Mendelson and his wife Fredda Mendelson. The prayers are chanted, that is, sung, by Jack, the choir he would hire for our temple’s High Holiday services, and soloists he culled from our congregation, one of whom was our daughter Ellie. The prayers are conveyed in an operatic style called “hazzanut.” Opera for the Jewish masses.
Hazzanut is a musical art form not universally appreciated by all worshippers. Simple recitation, with minimal extravagance, is their desire. Even before COVID-19, our synagogue opted to shelve spiritual musical inspiration for a plain Jane prayer service.
No longer our cantor, Jack Mendelson’s legacy is on “Yontef!”
Prayer was just one part of the Rosh Hashana ritual. Equally if not more importantly was the embrace in the sanctuary of friends, many of whom we saw at least monthly, or sometimes weekly, in normal times, the hugs, kisses and handshakes validation that we made it through another year. It was a time to see their children and grandchildren and, perhaps, a new sweetheart who might become part of their family or a new grandchild who had attained that status.
All that is shelved this year.
On the “Yontef!” CD, Ellie sings “V’karev P’zureinu,” a soulful exhortation for God to ingather the scattered Jewish people from among all nations from the ends of the earth. For almost a quarter century she would sing “V’karev P’zureinu” on Rosh Hashana and other holidays—Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. When she sang, all talking ceased within the sanctuary.
As I listened to her on the CD, my eyes teared up, just as they did when she would sing at temple. Parental pride aside, I could not help but reflect that this year there would be no ingathering of distant family, no assembling of friends around our Rosh Hashana eve dinner table.