The Annual Jewish Woodstock

September 05, 1994|By JOSHUA H. HAMMERMAN

STAMFORD, CONNECTICUT — Stamford, Connecticut.

Tonight, Jews will gather in synagogues throughout the world to welcome the new year, 5755 in the Jewish calendar. Unlike the secular new year, Rosh Hashana (literally, the head of the year) is not greeted with shouts and revelry, but rather with a quiet, introspective joy. The revelry is reserved for other festivals.

Joy is always mixed with apprehension during the first 10 days of the year, beginning with Rosh Hashana and concluding with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. According to a medieval legend, the Book of Life is opened during this period and our fate for the coming year determined. We pray not just for ourselves, for the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance.

Many understand this metaphor in a spiritual sense, in that we are not asking for mere existence but for a life of special quality. By changing our ways and returning to the pure and virtuous goals we long ago set for ourselves, a process known in Hebrew as ''Teshuvah,'' we can, in effect, inscribe our own names into the Book of Life.

I suppose you could call Rosh Hashana the annual Jewish Woodstock, only a little drier. The call blares out to all who gather -- whether projected by the shriek of the ram's horn or the rhythms of Crosby, Stills and Nash -- that it is time to return to the ''Garden.'' We all departed the Garden many years ago, we know that; but what is it that we left behind, and what pulls us back?

Is it the nostalgia for a youthful innocence that was neither that youthful nor that innocent? Or is it our memory -- not of a Kodak moment in the mud, but of a way of living and relating that seemed so natural once upon a time but now seems so elusive? This Garden was not only inhabited by our younger selves, but by our parents and grandparents, too, when times were simpler, before everything became unhinged.

Rosh Hashana teaches us that we can return, but only if we truly want to. Our good deeds and acts of charity are ways of measuring that intent.

Prayer plays an important role as well. While most people of a certain age go to the doctor for an annual physical, Jews of all ages come together this week for an annual ''spiritual.''

The prayers, culled from 3,000 years of Jewish self-examination, act as X-rays to the soul. Some of them are less resonant to the modern reader, but the mere act of repeating words uttered for centuries, whether or not we agree with every one, is therapeutic; they help bring us back, far back, to the Garden. Some of the prayers are repeated over and over throughout the 10 days; therapy, to be effective at all, cannot be administered only once. Certain phrases, certain melodies, become natural mantras that we cling to as focal points for reflection.

By the end of the period we are stripped bare, devoid of all the excuses, rationalizations and lies that make it impossible to VTC return. On Yom Kippur, the masks are removed and we see ourselves as we really are. Bodily pleasures are put aside; food and drink, sex, bathing and wearing leather shoes (considered a luxury) are proscribed by the tradition for that day. (There are other times when physical pleasure is exalted, Judaism is by no means an ascetic faith). All that remains is the unadorned human being, standing alone before God, in the company of hundreds of unadorned neighbors.

I've learned this year just how deceptive our masks can be. Last winter, on the festival of Purim, a day when Jews are supposed to wear masks, I dressed as Barney the dinosaur. Never have I been so popular with the 2-year-old set. They were lunging out of their parents' arms just to touch my purple tail. They called out, ''I love you,'' with teary faces as they said to their parents, ''I didn't know Barney was a rabbi.'' I received fan mail weeks later -- or should I say, Barney received it.

I felt like a Beatle. It was great. Attendance at our youth services was up for weeks. Needless to say, some of the older kids wanted to tear me apart in the true bash-Barney spirit. Fame has its down side.

It can get very hot in a Barney costume, so eventually I had to take off Barney's head for a few moments. Bad idea. Several weeping children had to be removed from the room. Somewhere, someday, on a psychiatrist's couch, a young adult will say, ''It all started to go wrong after Barney was decapitated.''

Then, several weeks ago, I had a unique experience in Jerusalem. I had to carry a Torah scroll through an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood on my way to a Bar Mitzvah in the Old City.

Jewish law instructs us to treat the Torah with extreme respect; there is nothing more sacred short of a human life. As I walked, people I passed stopped to kiss the scroll's velvet mantle. Everyone.

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