If ever there were a Rosh Hashanah that might symbolize new beginnings for me, this is it. For 23 years — even for the year I lived abroad — I have called New York home. Not anymore. Today I closed the door for the last time on my Brooklyn Heights apartment and walked out into a new life. Today I’ll fly down to Atlanta to meet my nephew, who will be experiencing his first Rosh Hashanah.
I have read that while our culture imagines us as walking forward into the future, some cultures see the future as something we walk backwards into: we can see the past clearly, but the future is hidden. It’s very easy for me to catalogue the things I’m leaving behind, and much harder for me to bring to mind, at this moment, what it is I’m heading towards. I suppose that I’m still in a bit of a pause before the start of what I have been thinking of as my new life, which is my life in Asia. For the next couple of months, I’ll be in the US, not at home in New York, but also not on my new adventure.
But this is also my real life, and something new and different. I am taking a pause, an interregnum, as we enter into the Jewish season of reflection and renewal. There’s an arc to the whole thing. Rosh Hashanah is the entry point into a period of sanctification, with Yom Kippur as its climax, the moment when (we hope) the purification is complete, and we are ready to begin the new year. Then comes Sukkos, a reconnection with earthy reality, where we build huts and eat outdoors under starlight and leaves and wave branches and fruit around. It’s a festival that focuses on joy, coming to its conclusion with a burst of celebration for the Torah, the text and the way of life that links the high spiritual plane of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with the material reality of crops and dirt and fecundity that Sukkos celebrates.
I am thinking about all of this not just because my life is changing, but because of how it’s changing: among other things, I’m co-writing a Vietnamese book about Jewish childhood education. As I step away from what my life has been and prepare to set forth into what it will be, I’m interested in taking a fresh look at the Jewish part of my upbringing — a look that will be, I hope, a little distanced from all of the adolescent conflict that charged my experience of Orthodox Judaism when I was at home and living it. I will be writing my book over these next weeks and months, looking back on my own childhood to discover what was best in it so that I can share these things with a nation on the far side of the world about which I know very little.
As with my New York life as well, I will spend some time sifting out the resentments and frustrations, the disappointments and discomforts, to find the jewels I’ll carry with me. They will need to be compact and lightweight and durable enough for the unpredictable road ahead, and useful enough to be worth carrying.