Stu­art Nadlers first book, The Book of Life, is now avail­able. He will be blog­ging all week for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

For me, the year has always begun in Sep­tem­ber. I grew up near Boston, and part of this feel­ing, sure­ly, is that the sea­son changes then, that sum­mer ends and school begins, that in the stores sud­den­ly there are reminders of what’s to come: Hal­loween masks, pot­ted bur­gundy chrysan­the­mums, pump­kins for sale in bins at the farm stands. Of course, Sep­tem­ber, in most cas­es, marks the begin­ning of the High Hol­i­days. It falls late this year, the bulk of the Days of Awe spilling over into Octo­ber. As I write this, we’re half a month away, and in New Eng­land, there is still the resid­ual film of sum­mer hang­ing over every­thing. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kip­pur are, per­haps, the most benev­o­lent of all our hol­i­days, a time devot­ed, in part, to an intro­spec­tive cri­tique of our sins and mis­giv­ings, our fail­ings, the griev­ances we car­ry. I took the title of my col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, The Book of Life, from the part of the High Hol­i­day litur­gy which has been my favorite since I was young: On Rosh Hashanah It is Writ­ten, On Yom Kip­pur It is Sealed. The sto­ries in my book are about fam­i­ly – about the endur­ing strug­gle between father’s and their sons, about the dif­fi­cul­ties between broth­ers. But in a large part, the sto­ries are about the sins and errors we com­mit against those we love.

Grow­ing up, these were the only ser­vices we attend­ed. We weren’t alone. The annex of our syn­a­gogue was opened to accom­mo­date those, like us, who still found it nec­es­sary to attend. This is the sto­ry of so much of the Reform expe­ri­ence this last half-cen­tu­ry, a loos­en­ing of the tra­di­tions, a slack­en­ing, a bur­geon­ing sec­u­lar iden­ti­ty. But it has nev­er been a puz­zle to me why these hol­i­days remain so impor­tant. There is a solem­ni­ty, and a sober holi­ness to the sight of the bereaved stand­ing among their neigh­bors to recite the Mourner’s Kad­dish. There is the insis­tence of the Yahrzeit can­dle, and the sweet sym­bol­ism of apples and hon­ey. And there is a cer­tain beau­ty to the idea that trans­gres­sions suf­fered in pri­vate can be absolved in public.

But per­haps the most beau­ti­ful of the High Hol­i­day tra­di­tions is the one least known by Reform Jews, and cer­tain­ly, the one least prac­ticed. In Hebrew, tash­likh means cast­ing off. The rit­u­al is a sim­ple one: you take pieces of bread, throw them into the riv­er as if you were feed­ing ducks, and watch them all float down­stream. To do this is to sym­bol­i­cal­ly cast away your sins, to slough off a year’s mis­deeds, to start the new year fresh. This comes from the prophet Micah:

He does not retain His anger for­ev­er,
Because He delights in unchang­ing love.
He will again have com­pas­sion on us;
He will tread our iniq­ui­ties under­foot.
Yes, You will cast all our sins
Into the depths of the sea.

Stu­art Nadler will be blog­ging here all week and is cur­rent­ly tour­ing as a part of the Jew­ish Book Net­work.

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