The Ghosts of Rosh Hashana’s Past

By Devora Jaye

When I was growing up, Rosh Hashanah was my favorite holiday. Everything was majestic and exciting and I always got a new dress. I always felt that Rosh Hashanah was a do-over, like the first day of school. The previous year didn’t matter. I was less interested in the spiritual aspect of the holiday and more excited about the possibilities. A Brand New Year. If I yelled at my sister, got bad grades or spoke lashon hara, it was ok; I was starting over. For twenty years of my life I held on to that feeling, that glittery, shiny excitement of the Brand New. And then something happened.

When the Twin Towers fell just before Rosh Hashanah, it changed my life forever. I will never forget those weeks and days leading up to what had been my favorite yom tov. I remember every excruciating second: waiting for news of my brother-in-law who worked at the World Trade Center; not getting good news, like every one of my friends who knew people who were there; deciding to head home to Maryland to wait it out; the car ride to my sister’s apartment to pack up her things; the long drive to my parents’ house; leaving a smoldering city skyline behind in the rearview mirror.

No one spoke. We all moved as if we were underwater. And somehow, then we had to make Rosh Hashanah.

I walked with my father to shul on the first night of the yom tov, so he would not have to go by himself—my brother-in-law was his only son. Everyone was silent. I watched from the women’s section as every man in the shul walked up to my father and hugged him. Davening that Rosh Hashanah was painful. For the first time, I felt connected to the prayers, the judgment, the true meaning of Rosh Hashanah. I could not see the possibilities of the year ahead. There was only one possibility I was interested in: I wanted my brother-in-law to be alive. I prayed like I had never prayed before. My other sister and I were huddled together in shul, as if somehow by combining forces, Hashem would grant our request. But Rosh Hashanah was ruined for me. It would never again have the same luster, the same tingly excitement it had always had.

lasting impressions pullA year later, as Rosh Hashanah approached, I was filled with dread. Not the good kind of spiritual “about-to-be-judged” dread. Just dread. How could I do this again? I didn’t want Rosh Hashanah to come. I couldn’t bear the disappointment. Why bother praying if I was going to be ignored anyway? How could I have my Brand New Rosh Hashanah when I was filled with anger and sadness, when I could not believe Hashem had ignored my heartfelt pleas the year before? I was bereft of the joy that I had always associated with this holiday. Rosh Hashanah would never be the same again.

But things change. My family has changed. I’ve changed. I have seen that there is comfort in friends and family. I have learned that every moment we have in this world is beautiful. I have seen how people can become stronger, how families and communities can unite in times of pain. I have learned that we can heal. There might not be a happily ever after, but there is “happy” and there is “after.”

My view of Rosh Hashanah has changed, too. I have learned that it’s not about the shiny Brand New, starting over. It’s about starting over with all the lessons that you learned since the last Rosh Hashanah.  It’s about layering every Rosh Hashanah of your life into that Brand New, and applying your own glitter to it.

Devora Jaye is the director of student programming at MEOR Maryland, a national campus outreach initiative, youth director at the Young Israel Ezras Israel of Potomac, and creative consultant for Dear Coco Chocolate, an award-winning boutique kosher artisan chocolatier. She currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2016.