L’Shanah tovah — happy new year

Rosh Hashanah begins this evening at dusk, and friends of mine will welcome these days with honey and apples and family. I’m thinking of you all warmly tonight.

I remember nights, some time ago now, when friends blessed Shabbat candles in the late summer dusk, and I remember the quiet warmth of the space you made, asking us to slow down while the candles burned. I remember the feeling of a room listening, friends sitting quietly together and two voices singing to a rhythmic guitar, looking ahead into a new time. You welcomed me in to the ritual, and I want to thank you for that time.

On the eve of your new year, I’m thinking of it as I look for an understanding of what today means to you, and it comes to me in one word — transformation.

It comes from Bayit, a group of Rabbis and scholars, writers and thinkers and artists, holding an online conversation about Jewishness in contemporary, challenging days. Some of these active minds have Berkshire roots, and this summer they have gathered a new collection of poems, prayers and art for the Days of Awe. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is the leader of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, and she offers a poem at the opening.

‘Tonight we turn from inattention
and return toward awe …’

And I think yes, that turn feels necessary. Right now, in a surging pandemic, when the physical distancing we thought we were moving away from has come back. Turning toward is vital, in whatever ways sustain us. How else do we hold on?

Just last week a neighbor reached out while I was picking raspberries, gathering my farm share, and when I came home we sat together in the grass on Friday night, on her Shabbat I realize now, and she saw a cooper’s hawk in the white pine tree.

Rosh Hashanah is not a holiday I grew up with, and it feels right to me to have a holiday here in this season, when the apples are ripe. In the northeast we’re gathering the harvest of the last year. It feels like a natural time to share a meal or walk through a garden and think over what we’ve grown this season before we sit down to prepare for the next.

Right now summer is turning and students return to school, semesters begin, minds warm up. Red peppers ripen, leaves take on a crisp, golden edge, and plants become tasseled and tattered and spiky with seeds.

How does a new year feel if it begins now? Winter is a kind of regenerative rest here in the snow, gathering energy for the year ahead, and September is a time of active preparation — seeds shooting over the meadow, caterpillars spinning chrysalides, birds stocking up to migrate, chipmunks storing nuts. Taking time to think about the year becomes a call to act on this one day.

‘Keep open the gates
at this time of closing,
for day is turning.’
— R. David Markus

Bring a pressure of time, and the idea of transformation changes, becomes a new kind of imperative and challenge — how to believe transformation is real, and how to believe it happens now. Their poems and prayers are calling to attention, stretching toward something new applying mind and energy to it. And they hold a strength of love and listening in hard times.

‘The end of day.
That doesn’t mean
I’m leaving you.’
— R. Rachel Barenblat

They are making a space between the old year and the new, and it is the time at the end of the day, the feeling of coming in from the garden, from transplanting daylilies, to take the bread out of the oven and share it, still hot enough to melt the butter. Stand in the kitchen with muddy jeans and feel tired as though we’ve earned it. R. Sonja K. Pilz says how good it feels to sing:

‘… with voices dry and raspy from the day,
in words only partly our own …
palms sweaty, fists open …’

And then one line hits me in the gut.

‘I want to be at home with you.’ — Psalm 27

How simple and how galvanic. What would it mean if we all could feel at home? And wouldn’t that change the world.

In my family cycle, this is a time of birthdays. So I do have holidays at this turn of the year, and they are about family and the future. My brother has just moved into a new year, and I’m thinking of him and of the woman I loved like a grandmother. I think of her every year when the wild grapes start to show. They always ripen around her birthday, and we used to pick them for her, long after she could climb on stone walls to get to the vines tangled in the elderberry bushes. We would bring them home to her in old dented soup kettles, and she would make jam.

And I know why I’m thinking of them now, and why I’m afraid, and why I want to hold on to transforming, paying attention and talking quietly at night. Yes, I want to be at home with people and active minds, and wild grapes, and the forces that make and keep the land I’m standing on.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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