When I was 12 years old, my family lived in London for six months. During the winter holidays, we toured Europe and ended up in Rome on New Year’s Eve. Staff at the hotel warned us that we should not be out on the streets at midnight because the custom in Rome was to throw everything people did not want any more out their windows, onto the street below. We weren’t sure we believed them, but decided we better not take a chance.
It was a good thing we did, because at midnight people started throwing out furniture, appliances, clothing, bedding, food. It was wild! The next morning, garbage trucks made their way through the streets collecting the trash. By the end of the day, the streets were cleared, and the citizens of Rome were ready to enter a new year unencumbered by all the things they no longer needed or wanted.
I have to admit that I am surprised this custom has not spread more widely and been adopted in other places. It’s such a great physical reminder that we have the choice to relieve ourselves of the burdens we carry. Instead, most of our New Year’s celebrations involve loud noises. My other childhood memory is a family tradition that at midnight on New Year’s Eve, we took out pots and pans, opened our windows, and banged the pots and pans as loudly as we could. Although maybe it’s not as exciting as throwing things out of our windows, it was always a thrill to stay up late and make as much noise as we wanted to.
All those years that we were banging on pots and pans, I never gave much thought to why people make noise on New Year’s Eve. I certainly never associated the noise with blowing the shofar on the Jewish new year. Then, several years ago, I picked up a used copy of a book called “Festivals of the Jewish Year” by Theodor Gaster. From Gaster I learned that for primitive peoples the new year was a time when “demons were thought to be especially rampant, eager to inflict mischief and harm.” He explains that “to scare them away, it is customary in most parts of the world to beat drums, sound gongs, blow trumpets, crack whips, and generally create pandemonium.” Gaster gives several vivid examples —troops of dancers in Japan going house to house rattling bamboo sticks; boys in Scotland circling the houses in their villages and creating a deafening din to expel demons and witches; boys and girls in parts of Switzerland and Germany banging drums and kettles and blowing whistles. The book originally was published in 1952 (my paperback has a price of $3.75 on the cover!), and I suspect some or all of these practices have been abandoned since then. But as Gaster points out, “the general practice of noise-making, though the reason has long since been forgotten, survives in our New Year’s Eve celebrations.”
Gaster adds that for ancient peoples, the new year also was a time when the order of the world was reestablished, the gods defeated the forces of chaos and were formally reinstated as sovereigns of the world, and the fate of human beings for the coming year was determined. Sound familiar? Judaism adopted many of these ancient practices for Rosh Hashanah when we blow the shofar, proclaim God’s sovereignty, and ask God to inscribe us for another year of life.
I was fascinated to learn about the primitive and pagan roots of many of our Rosh Hashanah customs. But I am also struck by the ways that Judaism has reinvented these customs, giving them new meaning. This is the great strength of Judaism — we hold onto ancient customs and rituals, but we continue to infuse them with meaning that is relevant to the world we live in today.
In contrast, American society tends to drain the meaning out of our holidays. We celebrate or commemorate with barbecues, shopping, and parties. There is a place for that, and for those who don’t celebrate Christmas, it’s nice to have a secular celebration at this festive time of year. Especially in these pandemic times, we need all the fun and joy we can get. (I recommend opening your windows and banging pots and pans for a covid-safe celebration!)
But if the new year is meant to be a new beginning, a time to make resolutions about how to live more healthy, caring lives in the year to come, surely, we can do more than making loud noises and drinking champagne.
On Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar to celebrate creation and the birthday of the world, to proclaim the glory of God, and to shake us out of our routines. We strive to start the new year wide awake. During the Days of Awe we commit to doing teshuva, not just as an exercise in self-improvement, but to repair our relationships and return to the truest version of ourselves.
The secular new year arrives a few months after the Jewish new year. Perhaps we could use it as a time to renew our vows. We could look back at what we hoped for during the Days of Awe and check in with our progress. Real change and teshuva are difficult. We all could use a reminder of what we glimpsed at Rosh Hashanah, how we yearned to change our lives and return to our best selves. We might remember what the prophet Elijah taught us: God is not in the storm and the wind and the deafening din; God is in the still, small voice.
Much as I love banging pots and pans and throwing out things I do not need, I think I need to spend this new year listening to the still, small voice reminding me: You and every other human are exquisite beings made in God’s image. The demons you need to chase away are inside you. Making loud noises probably will not help. This is a day to slow down, breathe, pause, notice, wonder, pray, look within, reach out.
This is a day to use the tools of Judaism to infuse meaning into another new year.
Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist-affiliated Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is now the president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding member of the council’s anti-racism committee.