Beginning the Days of Awe

I just woke up. I don’t normally sleep until 12:38 p.m., but I’m sick. Some flu that’s going around. The symptoms are like fireworks, each is more spectacular and surprising than the last. And now….the grand finale!

This evening begins Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It begins a period of ten days called “the days of awe,” concluding with Yom Kippur, that require Jews to reflect on their lives, recognize their mistakes, and attempt to reconcile, repair, and renew themselves and their relationships. There’s also a giant ram’s horn that is blown in synagogue, during services. Seriously, how hardcore is that? It does not sound pretty.

I’m a lay cantor. The “lay” part means that I lead services with the rabbi, even though I didn’t go to cantorial school (a five year graduate program). The “cantor” part means that I’m the one who does all (or most of) the singing. It also means that I’m a religious and spiritual leader. The musical liturgy is in Hebrew. In fact, I even get to sing calls to the people blowing the shofars, and the instruments will bellow back their replies. It’s a very interesting dialogue. I always love it. My voice (which is naturally sort of sweet and warm, despite all my efforts to make it dark and deep and mysterious), calling out in the silence, from the bima (the alter), and the harsh returning cry of the shofarot, which obey all of my commands. There is a vocal command for the length of each of their sounds, and for the number of sounds they will make. Girl and ancient ram’s horn ensemble. The interaction of these sounds is an epiphany. It’s a transformation. It’s only very, very recently, historically, that women have participated in traditional organized monotheistic religion. And even more recently that women have led congregations. It may not feel radical anymore, because we as individuals are so quick to adjust and so ephemeral. But it IS radical. The voice of a girl playing with the voices of the ritual instruments, calling back and forth, is something strange and new and daring and simultaneously completely right, as though it always should have been that way.

So tonight I will stand in front of my congregation and sing. And right now I’m lying in bed with my laptop, feeling like I might not be able to move. It’s a good thing the theme of this time of year is transformation. I’m going to need a lot of that. And a lot of that nasal spray stuff.

I love change. I love that life is all about movement and weird surprises and forgetfulness and learning new tricks. And I like the opportunity to reflect back on my life. I’m one of those people who has always kept a journal. And one of the things I’ve always done in it is write letters to myself. They’re usually composed of questions. I address the letters to an older self, and I instruct myself when I am allowed to respond. “Dear Kate, age 35:” and so on. But here is a letter to myself of today and the past year. And to all of you of today and over the past year. If you aren’t Jewish, that doesn’t mean you can’t think about how you’d like to answer these questions.

What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned this year?

What is a new skill you’ve acquired?

Did you do something big that you never thought you’d be able to? What was it?

What do you find beautiful about yourself that you didn’t before this year?

Who did you grow to love even more?

Who did you grow to love or appreciate for the first time?

Who impacted you in a profoundly positive way?

Who surprised you?

Who infuriated you? Have you been able to come to terms with it?

Who hurt you? Have you been able to forgive them?

What do you recognize in yourself that you want to work to improve?

What food did you discover? Or what food did you grow to love?

What negative thing have you let go of?

What is something you’re truly sorry for?

Who did you really hurt? Did you tell them you’re sorry?

What goal did you accomplish? (It’s OK if it’s something “small”)

What are you really looking forward to?

What is one of your favorite things about your life, looking back?

I discovered chocolate peanut butter cookies from Levain bakery on 73rd. They are without a doubt the best cookies in the world. And I grew to love avocado. I’m sorry for letting my friendship with my friend Sarah slip away. I started putting my words out into the world, through blogging. That’s been a longtime goal, though I didn’t know what form it would take. I was surprised by Bear, my fiance, who I met a little over a year ago. I think my eyebrows are beautiful. I never really noticed them before now. My favorite thing about my life over the past year has been falling in love, and the amount of happiness I’ve experienced that before this was just a vague fantasy about happiness.

And now I’m going to drink some cough syrup and think about transformation some more. I’ll answer the rest of the questions to myself. But if you’d like, feel free to share some of, or all of, your answers with me.

We’re pretty amazing, us people, with our complicated, thrilling, mundane, passionate lives. Devoting some days of awe to us is really not a bad idea.

(yup. that’s a shofar. source)

*  *  *  *  * *

Un-roast: You know, my eyebrows :)

P.S. Happy birthday to my baby brother, who is eighteen today! He has had to sit through a lot of Rosh Hashanah services on his birthday…..

22 Comments »

Kate on September 8th 2010 in feminism, life

22 Responses to “Beginning the Days of Awe”

  1. Debbie responded on 08 Sep 2010 at 2:36 pm #

    Feel better Kate. I’ll see you tomorrow. Love, Debbie

  2. Kristin responded on 08 Sep 2010 at 3:12 pm #

    Beautiful post Kate. I just answered your questions for myself and it really put me in a good mood to cantor my own congregation tonight. Shana Tova! Make your next year be filled with love, luck, and success!

  3. Samantha Angela @ Bikini Birthday responded on 08 Sep 2010 at 4:01 pm #

    I’m not Jewish but I love the idea of Rosh Hashanah. Correct me if I’m wrong but it seems like a time when you can look back on how you have been living and whether or not you have benefitted from your choices. It seems like you don’t have to feel bad about the mistakes that you made, you just have to own them.

  4. Kate responded on 08 Sep 2010 at 4:20 pm #

    @Kristin
    L’shanah tovah! You as well. Your congregation is lucky to have you!

  5. Kate responded on 08 Sep 2010 at 4:22 pm #

    @Samantha
    That’s definitely the way I interpret the days of awe. You might get a different interpretation from an Orthodox Jew, but the tradition teaches us to seek out people we’ve wronged and make amends. It’s very much about action and reparations, and about dealing with where we are now, rather than sitting around feeling negative. So yes :)

  6. B.T. responded on 08 Sep 2010 at 5:35 pm #

    This was beautiful.

    To answer some of the questions,
    I have a neighbor who I got to know for the first time a few months ago, and we’re becoming close friends. She’s been there for years, but our paths never really crossed somehow.

    I’m really looking forward to seeing more of the world.

    And I love how strong my body is. I’m discovering that more and more.

    You made me think! Thank you!

  7. Amy responded on 08 Sep 2010 at 7:43 pm #

    September is the beginning of a new Orthodox Christian year. I feel the same… a new start this fall.

  8. Rosh Hoshana « Not Just Skin and Bones responded on 08 Sep 2010 at 9:44 pm #

    [...] j3n1fur in Recovery Borrowed from “Eat the Damn Cake,” the following are questions we can all ask ourselves, regardless of if its a new year or [...]

  9. Cindy responded on 09 Sep 2010 at 12:05 pm #

    Thank you for sharing the meaning of this holiday. I’ve always been curious! There is a lot to it and I hope you feel up to it. Singing is a LOT to deal with when you are sick (well, I would imagine) get some rest and dayquil is my otc drug of choice! hehe

    love your q n a and that you write letters to yourself. I have to journal (or blog now) all the time, or I feel my life will not be remembered. because if I forget it than it will be lost forever! weird thing to worry about, no?

    hmmm, let’s see:

    I think the biggest thing I am still learning this year is simply how to deal with parts of myself I normally ignore. The hard parts. the uncomfortable ones. it’s been a big project! haha

    I think I am learning to love myself more. It’s not been easy actually. funny.

    a couple that is my dad’s girlfriends parents (you know, Patti and Bill) made the biggest positive impact on me I think. I was devastated when they moved away…but we are still close!

    My Teenager has surprised me the most. He is blooming into a young man so fast and doing an amazing job in his own life. I am super impressed and proud of him!

    My Mom infuriated (and hurt) me, badly. To a point where I don’t speak with her. I am still working on coming to terms over it and the issues are not going to go away and I finally had to draw a line in the sand (which she crossed again) and therefore I have moved on. It has been the hardest year, and it’s caused ripples in the family that I wasn’t expecting. I am still working on it all.
    It’s not an issue of forgiveness, because I can’t imagine she consciously does what she does, but she hurts and and I become a needy, whiny child around her and I don’t, no Can’t , be that woman anymore. So I am walking a new path and it’s scary.

    sigh. (sorry, you asked! haha)

    Gosh there are tons I want to improve about myself, but my inflexibility is probably the biggest! at the moment! :)

    I have a ton of “rules” i live by (self protection ) and I am trying really hard to break them because they really serve me no good. I just do them out of habit and “old tapes”. but it causes me grief and isolation.

    I have knitted a sweater a month( or more) since January. It’s a silly thing but it was a challenge I signed up for and I am pretty proud that I stuck with it. Especially now that it’s getting cool out! woo hoo.

    I don’t know what I am really looking forward too. Life has been kind of unusually stuck in modes I don’t like for a long time. I have put all my eggs in that basket of “when this or that changes” and it still hasn’t so I am trying to learn to let THAT go. And I have been trying to just be content and happy regardless of the externals….but it’s not easy.

    well, there you go. My participation in Rosh Hashanah.

    get better my friend!
    xoxo

  10. Emily responded on 09 Sep 2010 at 1:46 pm #

    Beautiful piece kate… It makes me want to go to some Rosh Hoshanah services :)

    I love the questions. I started to tear up as I read them and thought about my past year. Awe is definitely the right word. Life can so thrilling and satisfying and beautiful when things come together, and even when they don’t. For me, the answers showed me how good this year has been, and how healing. One year ago from today, I was about to be broken up with by a boy who would hurt me more than I had been hurt in a long time. This didn’t even occur to me until I read the list for a third time, because life has taken me so far from that place. I spent the months after the breakup hurt, confused, and lonely. I tried to move on but on seemed like a far away dream. I learned that I could handle that. I learned that I could live, productively, somewhat happily, even when my heart was broken. I stretched my coping abilities and found that they were strong and resilient and adaptive. I learned how to let myself be sad and not feel worse because I wasn’t over it yet. I just let myself be.
    And then I hurt a string of boys who tried to come into my life for real but didn’t realize I had a hard shell for then. I warned each one of them but they didn’t listen and each one was hurt in the end.
    Then, one day, I looked around and I saw that the sun was out. The winter rain that covers my town until mid-march had vanished, and taken my hurt with it. I felt ok. I was happy. I was whole. I was content. I looked back and saw that I had been content for a while but hadn’t quite noticed. I learned that I could survive without a boy, and could recover from one without finding another. It was a revelation.
    And that is when love found me. It took me completely by surprise. Looking back, everyone is quite convinced that I had loved my friend Josh for quite a long time. I had, but not like this. This was something magical. I learned that love can be easy. It can sweep you up and cradle you instead of dangling you tenuously over the rocks of heartbreak. It can feel effortless, even as you carefully attend to every important task of maintaining it. It can consume your entire heart and leave it larger than before and full of love for everyone else you meet. It can feel safe without being boring. It can make you laugh harder and longer and more often than you thought possible and make you dance like a total nerd every time a good beat blasts through the radio. It can make you feel like you are done with one part of life and so excited for the next. I learned that love can make you whole. I learned that I didn’t know that before, even though I thought I did.

    I think that I am going to take these questions and post them on facebook. (I’ve already linked the blog with an emphatic suggestion that everyone read it today). I want people to think about these questions. We all need some days of awe…

    *much love*

  11. Gaby responded on 09 Sep 2010 at 1:58 pm #

    L’shanah tovah!
    That sounds like it would be amazing to hear, I’d love to go to those services!
    I hope you feel better soon, too. It’s always terrible when I lose my voice because my job literally depends on my ability to speak non-stop for hours.

    Oh , funny thing about eyebrows, I think that’s my unroast today too. I never even think about them much. Maybe every few months if I notice a stray hair, I’ll remember to pluck them, but I went to an alumni event yesterday and as soon as I walked in, the girl checking people in instantly said “I love your eyebrows! Do you get them threaded?” So I guess I’m lucky enough to have what many people pay for. Also, I get to NY Tuesday evening, so I’ll be talking to you soon!

  12. kari responded on 09 Sep 2010 at 4:31 pm #

    i’ve actually had a pretty big year. formative, and important, and whatnot. and i guess i hadn’t really thought about it until i read your list of questions.

    a year ago i was working a job with a medical nonprofit that i liked in theory, but i wasn’t happy with the day-to-day tasks it involved, or the work environment, or my boss. but i was sticking with it because i didn’t know what else to look for. about six months ago i revisited an old idea i’d mulled over from time to time – going to med school. this time, though, i figured if i was going to do it, it was getting to the point where i had better just do it. i’m not old (25) but it’s a long ass road, and i’m not getting any younger. so i’m going for it. i quit my job in june and started classes 3 days later. i’m in the midst of a pre-med post-bacc program, and i’ll take the MCAT and apply for schools next summer. it’s going to be a crazy year (followed by several more crazy years after that) and i think i’ve been focused so much on the future that i haven’t stopped to look back at the past. i’m really proud of and surprised by myself for actually taking this leap and delving into something new, and slightly frightening and foreign. i’m happy that this past year happened to bring me to where i am, and now i’m just pumped for the future. it’s a good feeling!

  13. Wei-Wei responded on 10 Sep 2010 at 12:25 am #

    Those questions are really ones to think about. Thanks for making me think. I’m in history class. I can’t think. And I hope you feel better soon.

  14. Rebecca responded on 10 Sep 2010 at 4:55 am #

    L’shanah tovah, kate!

    I’m so glad the singing went well,
    in spite of scratchy coughyness.

    I love the questions you posed, too…

    One of my goals this year was to stay (good) busy.
    It’s so easy to get stuck in the morass of pajamas and sitcoms when one is unemployed (been 13 months now, holy shiznit), that I wanted to be sure I was making good use of my time, and really?

    I have!

    I coordinated/did florals for five weddings,
    read almost 300 books,
    helped four sets of friends move out/in to new homes,
    refinished a sideboard,
    started work on refinishing a dresser-drawer set,
    and rediscovered my love of watercoloring.

    Today I Unroast:

    I am not inadequate, and I am not useless.
    I am talented and worth employing,
    no matter how long it takes me to get another job.

    Thanks for the uplift, Kate–
    I hope this new year smiles on you and Bear.

  15. Noel responded on 10 Sep 2010 at 5:47 pm #

    I love this post for a lot of reasons…

    First, I love all the history and ritual and meaning behind it. And the thought of singing and music ushering in a new year.

    I love that you talk about the role of women in religion, and how that is changing. (I did not grow up with organized religion. I’m starting to think and inquire and research and ponder what it means, and if it’s a fit for me, and the lack of a female presence has definitely been a barrier for me. But that’s another story.)

    I love the idea of change and reflection and checking in with yourself regarding who you are, who you have been, who you are going to be. What you did well, what you could have done better, and what’s next. It’s funny, I was actually writing a bit about that the other day–how I need to check in with myself a few times a year, and how this fall is the perfect time to start. (You can check it out here. Hope it’s ok that I’m sharing a post. I know that blog comments are supposed to be for discussion and sharing, but I always feel like I should ask permission of the author first. If not, please delete this comment!)

    Thanks for the great post! Hope you feel better! :)

  16. Noel responded on 10 Sep 2010 at 7:25 pm #

    Thanks for the thoughts! Glad that was ok! :)

  17. Shirley Ann Goerlitz responded on 11 Sep 2010 at 4:00 pm #

    What a beautiful commentary on The Days of Awe. I love the idea of renewal and new doors opening and making the past a clean slate…all good things to do every now and then.

    You are blessed to be part of a tradition of worship and culture that encourages such positive development in the human heart. I love the pictures you have painted of the services and the significance of what you are doing.

    Thank you so much for this commentary. God bless you.

  18. Eat the Damn Cake » 20-Somethings: Doing Nothing and Everything At the Same Time responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 12:04 pm #

    [...] Thanks for the comments on the Days of Awe post. Here’s another nontraditional post about the High Holidays, from Penelope, who fed some [...]

  19. sherilee responded on 13 Sep 2010 at 1:58 pm #

    I enjoy your blog a great deal, and found this post especially meaningful–love those questions. Love them so much I answered them on my blog…
    http://sweetteasunshine.blogspot.com/2010/09/days-of-awe.html

    Thanks for your inspiration, as always.

  20. Eat the Damn Cake » Quarter life crisis responded on 07 Mar 2011 at 12:19 pm #

    [...] and I started actually doing that. I moved into a new apartment. I got better at cooking. I co-led high holiday services and a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs. I got married. I started a second blog. I got to know Bear [...]

  21. Eat the Damn Cake » how much do you weigh? the new book responded on 07 Oct 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    [...] P.S. This is Kate. I just wanted to say hi. It’s stunningly beautiful outside and I hope all you East Coasters are there, instead of reading my blog. But then I hope you come inside later and read my blog. I’m off to perform Kol Nidre (the beginning of Yom Kippur) services in a few hours. I am not as scared as I was for Rosh Hashanah. But I am, of course, not totally not scared. I’m resisting the urge to write yet another post about the High Holidays. Instead of writing one, here’s my post from last year about the Days of Awe. [...]

  22. Eat the Damn Cake » whatever you do, don’t marry a sick man responded on 16 Aug 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    [...] the train, on the way to our meetings, I get this familiar urge to read old journals. The same thing happens at this time every year. The h…, are a soul-searching, gut-wrenching, emotionally complex time. And I think the approach of autumn [...]

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