Friday, October 03, 2008

Bissli in the Hudson: Some Rosh Hashana Thoughts

We meant to get to tashlich by 5:30, but it was already 5:30 when we returned from the Columbia campus -- Alfie, Nala, Little Babe and me.

Allowing the heavy front door to swing shut with a grating squeal resembling nothing less than the brakes of a New York City subway train, terrifying my Pomeranians who bolted straightaway into the living room, I let out a booming greeting to HOBB (Husband of Bungalow Babe) whom I envisioned sitting on the couch, reading the Times.

Instead, my loud voice drew my husband, bleary-eyed, out of the bedroom, where he had spent a comatose two hours. "Lemmewashupandhavesometeaandwe'llgototashlich," he mumbled, stumbling to the bathroom.

Marveling at the swift passage of two hours (wearing no watch, I thought it to be in the 4:30 range), Little Babe and I scrambled out of our shorts into attire suitable for an outdoors communal gathering on the afternoon of Rosh Hashana.

Tashlich, to be exact. In Riverside Park, along the promenade, somewhere just south of 103rd street.

Anyone who has attended tashlich on the Upper West Side of Manhattan can attest to the cocktail party-like atmosphere of this gathering.

On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashana (the second day if the first day falls on a Shabbat), the entire span of the promenade, from about 72nd street up to about 105th street, hosts thousands of Jews of a variety of background and orientation who have come to perform the immensely likeable and metaphorical ritual known as tashlich, where one tosses one's "sins" into the water in the form of bread, crackers, cookies or other similar products.

In our case, Bissli, the bite-sized, crunchy Israeli snacks, loaded with spice and MSG.

While I was rooting in the kitchen cabinet for molding challah or broken crackers, Little Babe grabbed the bag of Bissli, left over from our Labor Day weekend trip to Israel.

"Hey!" he said, pleased to discover a snack and ritual item at the same time.

Anyway, unless you are feeling horribly anti-social or anti-Semitic or are simply sick of seeing all your friends and neighbors or are really a stickler for performing mitzvot, tashlich allows Jews to do what they do best: acknowledge guilt and socialize. At the same time.

I admit that I always look forward to tashlich, knowing that I will be able to catch up on the lives of friends I barely see. True, many of the people I bump into I have just seen a few hours earlier, in shul, but there always turns out to be a core of people I seem to only talk to once a year. At tashlich.

There is a sweet, mutual, Same Time Next Year aspect to our instant life-catch-up as we stand shoulder to shoulder with others who are doing exactly the same.

And every year, the composition of the crowd seems comfortingly predictable: a gaggle of little kids playing underfoot; teens and college students huddling in cliques; older couples linking arms; a few Hasidic families; some boldface-name individuals -- writers, intellectuals, a singer who became sort of famous, a businessman who was recently indicted; young couples with babies; a charismatic rabbi; a child overly-tired, crying and pulling on his mother; tattooed or pierced Jews; the family that suffered a horrible tragedy; Jews recently arrived from other countries -- France, Russia, Hungary, England, Israel -- wearing obviously outlander garb, speaking in exotic tongues, drawing curious looks from the established citizenry of the Jewish Upper West Side.

Tashlich is done well because it is akin to so many other Jewish communal gatherings.

It is like the Israel Day Parade without the floats and Catholic School marching bands.

It is like a shul kiddush except outdoors.

It is like a wedding or bar mitzvah except without a smorgasbord.

It is like shul, but with really short davening and permission to talk.

It is a cocktail party without alcoholic drinks or the pressure to dress up. And if you are worried that you are not mingling enough, you can take comfort in the fact that tashlich is actually a religious ritual.

(Funny things also happen at tashlich. About seven years ago, our Anabaptist babysitter Susan was approached by a nice yeshiva bocher who continued to stalk her throughout the year, despite her repeated disclaimers that she was a fundamentalist Christian.)

But let me return to our family and the bag of Bissli and our journey to tashlich earlier this week.
So, though the original plan was to arrive at 5:30, thereby giving us maximum schmooze time (and also provide ample set-up time for our dinner guests, scheduled to arrive at 7:30; the dinner food had already been cooked earlier in the day and was warming up ) we only reached the banks of the Hudson at 6:30, by which time groups of Jews were heading home or to synagogue and the sun was slipping over the river.

Still, scoping out the crowd, I saw at least a dozen people I was eager to connect with.

With Nala the puppy in tow (Alfie refused to come out of the closet after our Columbia excursion), Bissli in Little Babe's sweatshirt pocket and a siddur in HOBB's hand, we made a beeline for the water, determined to recite tashlich, toss our sins and return to our regularly scheduled schmoozefest.

Now, I will admit that in previous years, I have managed to neglect reciting the prayer (or even tossing my breadcrumbs into the water!!) due to my mad frenzy to socialize. From the moment I descend into the mass of humanity, I kind of lose my focus. It is a type of Religious Attention Deficit Disorder, I think.

But this year was different. For starters, I actually recited the prayer. And was mindful about discarding my sins, going as far as to designate discrete sins to individual pieces of Bissli as I hurled them into the Hudson River. And I was conscious of expanding my concept of sin to encompass things that would not traditionally be deemed sinful, that is, they harm no one other than myself. I contemplated aspects of the previous year that I wished to discard and resolved to make important changes in my life.

I allowed tashlich to work its magic on me.

Now, on the eve of Shabbat, I look back in wonder at my meaningful tashlich of this year. It was not premeditated in the least, in fact, it was utterly spontaneous. I left my apartment thinking more of the people I would greet instead of the sins I would cast away. I left my apartment feeling anxious about not having enough time to play.

But when I arrived home, I knew that I had been given all the time I needed.

Maybe it was the bite-size pieces of Bissli that enabled me to divide my discontents into small, manageable chunks that might be more easily discarded. Maybe it was the awesome beauty of the sun slipping over the horizon as I stood and recited my prayer. Maybe it was the recent bar mitzvah of Little Babe, his presence beside me as I peered into the siddur. Maybe it was the proximity of the bracing shoulder of HOBB, with whom I just celebrated 25 years of marriage.

I do not know why tashlich worked for me this year in an entirely new way but I am grateful for it. Tossing the Bissli with kavanna compelled me to take seriously the introspective mandate of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Now that I have erased my slate, I am charged with a daunting responsibility.

My slate must be filled with that which is worthy of being lovingly preserved, not discarded.

Heading into the first Shabbat of the new Jewish Year, I glimpse a new horizon, white and spotless as a Sabbath or festival tablecloth, inviting the clutter and cacophony of a really great cocktail party.

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