Every year, on the first day of Rosh HaShana, I burn my tongue.
Not on purpose.
Clattering into the car with myriad accoutrements - knapsack, prayerbook, tallis, service outline, kipa, choir music, water bottle, microphone, snack, and travel mug of hot tea becausehowwillIsingforfourstraighthourswithoutit? – I am rushing to shul just a little later than I’d like.
I stop at a red light. Shoot. This is making me later. I remember the mug of tea I so meticulously brewed and packed this morning—yes! Because how will I, after all, singforfourstraighthourswithoutit? (Ha – wait till Yom Kippur.) I reach for the travel mug, put it to my lips, and, bam! I burn my tongue.
Every. Frigging. Year.
I have, in a way, come to cherish this bizarre habit as my own little High Holiday Ritual of the Id, a mini re-enactment of the burnt offering, if you will. It is poetic, you see, and could be read as strangely devout: At the dawn of every New Year, the cantor ritually burns her tongue in an act of unintended supplication to The Eternal. Oh God, burn my lips and I will sing your praise!
Maybe I do it because of the spiraling nature of human behavior – because try as we might to do better, we sometimes have to repeat the same mistakes several times before we can shift into something new, to treat our loved ones and strangers with more kindness, to not burn our goddamn tongue on the way to services. But we know that the real work is in returning and trying again. Because holiness lies in persistence, not perfection.
Nope, nope. That’s not why.
I need a new frigging travel mug; that’s why.
The other thing I do every year is I spend the High Holiday season ignoring my kids.
Not on purpose.
First, there’s the lead-up: For the entire month of Elul, Mama’s locked in a room on the third floor — chanting psalms? No. Hitting her head against the wall, trying to remember which nusach to use when on which holiday, trying to remember that elusive, hugeantic prayer, and continually meaning to but never getting around to reviewing the sections of Torah she’s leyning until during the actual Torah service, while the folks up for the previous aliyah are getting their blessing? Yes.
Then, there are all the nights - right around when school starts, mind you - that Mama’s out at choir rehearsals:
“Mama, you’re missing bedtime again?”
“Yes, sweetie, I’m sorry. I’ll come home and kiss you while you’re sleeping.”
“Mama, do you REALLY kiss us when you come home while we’re sleeping?”
“Yes, of course I do.”
"But we don’t feel it."
"That’s because you’re sleeping. But I do kiss you. Every time."
And all the mornings when Daddy is up with the kids and Mama isn’t, because Mama was up until 1:00 the night before, grabbing those consecutive, uninterrupted hours to learn the music for God knows what part of which service, she doesn’t even remember.
And, of course, there are the Holidays themselves: Mama leaves the house right after dinner, returns late at night, and is up and out at nine the next morning. She’s gone for most of the next two days, then comes home exhausted and sick. She spends the following week – when she is not napping - locked upstairs again in her office. And ten days after the first Holiday, she repeats the whole thing: Gone, gone, and gone — until late at night at the end of The Weird Grown-Up Fasting Day, when Daddy finally takes us to the Downtown Synagogue to see Mama and inhale cookies with the congregants.
I lie in bed at night, imagining the indie movies my children will one day make about their abandonment at the hands of their professionally Jewish mother. What do the High Holidays mean for us?, they’ll say with a smirk. We don’t know — MOM was never around then to explain. Jewish identity? Yeah, that means ABSENT MOM. Never mind the divorce papers with which I fear I will be served: “Was unable to function as partner and Jew simultaneously.”
I tell my kids this time of year is for thinking about all the blessings in our lives, the ways we want to change our behavior, and how our lives move in cycles, like the seasons, the weather, the Earth. I ask them at dinner what they remember from the past year.
“My birthday party.”
“What do you remember about your birthday party?”
“You wouldn’t let me have gummy worms.”
“Gummy worms rot your teeth. Are there things you’re happy about from the year, and things you’re sorry about?”
“I’m happy about my birthday party. I’m sorry I didn’t get gummy worms at my birthday party.”
Approach wall. Bang head.
Last week, Erev Rosh Hashana: My family is walking home. A block away from our house, our neighbor is blaring the soundtrack from “The Wiz” out of his parked van. I belt it out as we pass — “Ease on down, ease on down the ro-oad … come on … ease on down, ease on down the ro-oad …” — until my daughter shushes me:
“M-o-m! Stop! You’re messing me up!”
I am no stranger to being shushed by my daughter; at seven, she is already totally embarrassed by me. I can’t do ANYTHING in public. (She’s on the advanced track: Next year it will be outright disgust. At this rate, by the time she’s fourteen, she should be done with all of this and back to accepting me wholeheartedly. Right, parents of teens? Right?)
I usually ignore my daughter’s requests to tone it down, and she usually ignores mine. But this time, I am surprised enough to oblige. Because this time the complaint is not that I am embarrassing her; it’s that I’m getting in the way of HER singing.
“I’m making up a Rosh Hashana song,” she says. “And I can’t hear it when you’re singing.”
Stunned, I shut up. The rest of the way home, she trails behind me on the sidewalk, singing something to herself repeatedly, not quite loudly enough for me to hear the words.
We enter the house, and she says: “Mama, will you help me write something down?”
“Sure, sweets. What?”
“My song. I don’t want to forget it.”
“Great! Of course.”
“And maybe you and me can go upstairs with the computer and record it.”
“We can record it right now if you like.”
I pull out the computer.
“What’s the song called?”
“Um … ‘Everything’s Part of a Life.’”
I type it in. “When I say go, you start singing.”
“Okay.” She glances over at her dad and brother in the kitchen. “But nobody listen.”
“Right. Nobody’s listening.”
I press ‘record.’ “Okay, go.”
She leans in towards the computer. And she starts to sing:
“Festivals, parties, dying, funerals, all is part of a life,
Festivals, parties, dying, funerals, all is part of a life.
Happiness, sadness makes a life go ‘round
Everything’s part of a life
Festivals, parties, dying, funerals, all is part of a life.”
"That’s it," she says.
I stop the recording.
She gets it. The whole thing. Way better than I do.
I turn to my mom in my mind. Did you hear that? I ask silently.
Yup, my mom answers.
Did you teach her that?
Nope, Mom says. Life did.
Out loud, I say: “That’s beautiful, my love.” And I hold back my tears, because I know if my daughter sees them, she’ll turn away.
*Cappara is a Hebrew term with dual meaning: 1) An act of repentance; 2) A term of endearment for a loved one. (Thanks, Basya, for reminding me of that.)