The bittersweet Jewish holidays

The bittersweet Jewish holidays

My husband, Jim, and I traveled to the beach this Sunday morning, a day that was supposed to be exquisitely sunny and warm, a bonus day of summer in mid-September, but a disconcerting gray haze hung in the sky.

I was still happy and eager to spend the day together, relaxing and reading beneath an umbrella, with our toes in the sand and the music of the waves in our ears, even if the sun wasn’t brilliantly shining in a gorgeous azure sky. My spirits were somewhat dampened knowing the source of the haze was the wildfires in the west, reminding us of the tragedies happening all summer long in California and Oregon. I said to Jim that I dare not be upset by a little haze interfering with my beach day when we have so many blessings to count.

As Jim drove, my thoughts wandered to the Jewish holidays. We were then in the period between the two high holy days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I’ve noticed that Jewish holidays and practices are always bittersweet, never purely celebratory, kind of like today’s beach day.

The first high holy day, Rosh Hashanah, is a celebration of the Jewish new year, when Jews wish each other a sweet new year, enjoy apples dipped in honey, and serve honey cake. Yet one of the traditional calls for the new year, sounded on the trumpet-like instrument known as the shofar, the ram’s horn, is called shevarim, and it sounds like crying.

Some Jews practice the custom of casting off their sins from the prior year by throwing pieces of bread into flowing water to carry them away. It seems to me that this holiday is as much about looking inward with repentance for past transgressions as it is about looking ahead to a sweet new year. The most solemn of Jewish holy days arrives eight days after Rosh Hashanah and is called Yom Kippur, a day for atoning. Jews forgive each other as they practice their own repentance. Observant Jews fast to cleanse the body and spirit; some make charitable donations at this time of year as they seek God’s forgiveness. While Yom Kippur is clearly a solemn holiday, the concluding service is a hopeful one. It’s about looking ahead to a new year. Breaking the fast is typically done as a celebration with family and friends.

In the Jewish faith, it isn’t just the high holy days that are marked with the contrast of celebration and suffering. A minor but well-known Jewish holiday is Chanukah. It seems like a jolly celebration, with lights and dreidel games, but it commemorates a military victory and the rededication of the Temple. Even the most festive of Jewish weddings, celebrating the union of two families, includes the bittersweet moment of crushing a glass, often interpreted as a way of recalling the destruction of the Temple.

The theme of my day at the beach continued to be the bittersweet nature of life, simultaneously pleasant and marked by pain or suffering.

I took a long walk along the shoreline, a few miles north from Spring Lake, to Belmar, and noticed all sorts of bittersweet moments. I watched a kindergarten-aged youngster gleefully chasing the waves, successfully dashing back to the safety of his mother. But one time he wasn’t quite quick enough, and the waves swept him off his feet, leaving him shrieking, no longer in pleasure but rather in fear. Happily, mom was there to rescue him from this bittersweet moment.

A bit further up, a pair of toddlers, probably siblings judging from their matching porcelain skin and red hair, were joyfully playing in the sand, laughing and smiling. Suddenly, the older boy took a large shovel and repeatedly struck the younger girl with it. An adult intervened quickly, but not before I saw the girl’s face crumple from joy to shock and anger, accompanied by a baleful wail. This was a very easy-to-spot bittersweet moment.

I passed a large surfing competition, the 2021 Playa Bowls Belmar Pro, with scores of contestants. There was a huge stand and podium plus several speakers with an announcer’s voice blaring. I paused to watch a few surfers who were able to catch a wave and surf it all the way into the beach. Others were denied in their attempts to stand on their boards for any length of time when their turn came; the surf defeated them. There were many bittersweet moments as promising attempts turned into humiliating submersion when boards were swept out from under wobbly legs.

Progressing north along the shoreline, I noticed a marked change in the people I was passing. This section of the beach was now very crowded. The behavior of many of the people there was unusual, their posture just a little off, some heads and arms held at odd angles, some repetitive motions. A few banners confirmed what I suspected. I had stumbled upon the Autism Beach Bash. When I returned to my chair, I googled it on my phone. to learn that this was the largest annual gathering in New Jersey of people with autism and their families.

I considered how pleasant it must be to join as a community, feeling each other’s support and enjoying a judgment-free day on the beach. I saw adults wearing Surfers Healing t-shirts, and I chatted with one woman. She explained that their mission is to expose people with autism to surfing. I imagined the range of bittersweet moments the families must experience, both in their pursuit of a happy day at the beach as well as on any day. No doubt their lives are filled with bittersweet moments of both small and significant victories among the many struggles.

I turned around to head back to Jim and our spot in the sand after walking about two and half miles. I contemplated so many examples of the day’s bittersweet moments: how pleasant it is to bask in the sun and how painful a burn can be; how delightful it is to walk in the sand and how impossible it is to get all the sand out from between my toes when it’s time to leave; how calming it is to watch the waves roll in yet how tortuous it is to turn the pages of a newspaper in the wind of the beach.

I think my Jewish friends have it right: holidays are bittersweet occasions because they are like life itself.

Susan FitzGibbon of West Orange is a teacher. She has been a member of the JCC for nearly 35 years and absorbed her knowledge of Judaism from her husband and her two sons’ years at the JCC preschool.