Columnist Sara Weinberger: Traditions, meaning infuse High Holidays


Published: 09-17-2023 7:00 PM

Even though the humidity and summery temperatures feel more like July, the familiar signs of fall’s transition are all around.

On my morning walk, I see the school buses loaded with children heading towards Easthampton’s Mountain View School. Friends are returning to college campuses. Tanglewood concerts have drawn to a close. The throngs of vacationers heading to Cape Cod have returned home. It’s a time of endings and beginnings as daylight gets shorter, and apples and pumpkins replace cornfields and tomato vines.

As a Jewish person, September signals the approaching High Holy Day season, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. My brother and I recently reminisced about the New Years of our childhood, our house filled with aromas of our mother’s braided loaves of challah, brisket smothered with roasted onions baking in the oven, the pot of chicken soup simmering on the stove, and her delectable apple kuchen!

Missing school was mandatory, despite the awkwardness of being absent so early in the school year. Yet, once inside Temple Ner Tamid (eternal light), I was surrounded by community ushering in the New Year to the resounding blasts from the shofar (ram’s horn). I still can hear my father’s spirited voice intoning the Hebrew melodies. Despite losing his family to the Nazis, he could still raise his voice in song.

Ten days later, we would once more skip school, dress up again and walk the block and a half to the synagogue for Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement, when the congregation spent the day abstaining from food and confessing together the wrongs we each had committed during the year, with the hope of being inscribed in the book of life.

“As kids, it was all about food and friends,” I told my brother, as we remembered the joy of returning home at the end of Yom Kippur to my mother’s noodle kugel, a sweet casserole of noodles, cottage cheese, eggs, vanilla, raisins, butter, and of course, sugar, that my daughter insists I make each year.

Today, I continue to channel my mother’s holiday preparations, though I order my challah from Woodstar Bakery, serve Park Hill Orchards’ apples to dip in honey for a sweet year, and substitute mushroom piccata for brisket.

My parents, Holocaust survivors, who had lost so much, managed to create joyous and meaningful High Holy Day traditions that I have adapted and passed on to my daughter who, along with her spouse, Jules, have made them their own.

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None of us, however, are stagnant beings. We are changed each year by age and the circumstances of our lives, and so too does the meaning and observance of these holidays change with time.

The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to as “The Days of Awe,” a time of repentance, repair and returning to our true selves. Admittedly, I resist the idea of facing up to my endless list of shortcomings, yet I am moved by the Kol Nidre prayer recited on the evening of Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre means “All Vows.” As we confess our sins, at the same time we are aware that we already know we will fall short of the vows we make to do better, and so we ask God (and ourselves) in advance for forgiveness for future sins.

In “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared,” Rabbi Alan Lew stresses the importance of taking contemplative time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to honestly, yet compassionately grapple with who we are and the ways in which we disconnect from our true divine nature. Life is messy and each day brings opportunities to respond or react to what happens in ways that either make our lives “a blessing” or “a curse.”

Facing the truth of who we are, how we got there, and who we have harmed along the way is painful, but also healing, requiring that we seek forgiveness with a direct apology to those we have harmed.

The “hardest truth of our lives,” according to Rabbi Lew, is facing our mortality, that we were born out of a “void,” born on a narrow bridge on which we construct our lives before death returns us to the void. Yet, “this turning of our full attention toward the trembling edges of life and death is essential in order to crack open our defended and fearful hearts.”

Death is inevitable, but compassion for all living beings, including ourselves, and the ways in which each of us brings light to a broken world, give meaning to our fleeting time on this narrow bridge.

One doesn’t need to be Jewish to reap the benefits of the lessons of the High Holy Days. Many readers may not know much about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, yet they are filled with rituals and insights relevant to all of us, including the realization that we “are inseparable, interconnected with one another,” as Miriam Margles has said.

Shana Tova (Wishing all of us, no matter what our beliefs, a meaningful year!)

For my parents, Herman and Irene Weinberger.

Sara Weinberger of Easthampton is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column. She can be reached at