by Joy Resmovits
One of the biggest privileges of being Jewish in moments like these, when the world feels like it’s caving in on itself, is that we get to ring in a new year in the middle of the fall. Yes, it marks a time of serious spiritual self-questioning and atonement, with hours-long services and liturgy replete with some stone-cold allusions to who will die and who gets to live another year. New Year’s Eve it is not.
But ultimately, we dress up our tables with fish heads (for a new start), pomegranates (filled with seeds that supposedly equal the number of mitzvoth, or good deeds, but don’t try to count them …), and apples dipped in honey (to bless our year with sweetness) and get to wave a fond farewell to 5,781, the current year of the Jewish lunar calendar.
Since it’s a time of reflection, I’m looking at the past to illuminate the future. And what I’m realizing on the eve of this time-bound holiday — which, quite strangely, falls on Labor Day this year — is that our clocks are broken. No, not our Fitbits, our internal clocks. Since 2019, our lives have been compressed into an unnatural pattern of bursts of change and excruciating stasis. We are, simply put, out of sync with the passage of time. On top of the grief and inequalities that compound on a daily basis, the compressed way in which we are forced to take in life’s IRL splendors — for those of us who are lucky to not be immunocompromised — is grinding us down. Numbing us. This is the season of quitting, haven’t you heard?
As the tradition of Rosh Hashanah would dictate, it’s time to wake up from this haze, and I’m trying to figure out how to do that.
This time last year, in the weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the idea of an early ending made me hopeful. And I wasn’t alone. Do you remember the fall of 2020? The air felt a little crisper, the leaves a little crunchier, tinged with the notion that 2020 — what so many of us thought would be the worst year of our lives — was entering its final act, and doing so after a summer that felt like things were moving in the right direction for once. The thought of ending it early? Bliss.
So we celebrated Rosh Hashanah, and nothing changed. More people got sick and died. Students were stuck at their computers, if they were fortunate enough to have reliable Wi-Fi. As a journalist covering education for The Seattle Times, it was hard to look away from the uneven toll the pandemic was taking, particularly on our region’s young people and their families. In my neighborhood, abject poverty revealed itself further, forcing so many people to sleep outside in tents. Still, I tried to hang onto that hope. We got news of vaccines developing at a faster clip than we were first told to expect. We read about what happened after the Spanish flu: The roaring ’20s. It was time for us to have our own.
We got this.
Then came the start of the Gregorian New Year, when we saw a very, um, surreal light show surround the Space Needle. My father, a pediatrician in New York — who I hadn’t seen in over a year — got fully vaccinated, helping me sleep. Later that month, I laughed at Kate McKinnon’s portrayal of Dr. Wenowdis on Saturday Night Live: “It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel has shown us how stinky and bad the tunnel is.” Too real.
We got a glimpse of ~hot vax summer~, arriving at an uneven pace thanks to unequal vaccine distribution. Then came delta, jettisoning our plans. I am so lucky to be healthy, have a roof over my head, and so many people I love in my life, both here and across the country and world. And hobbies. However, in the last month or so, I’ve felt this sense of weariness. When someone asks how I’m doing, and I think they really want to know, I tell them I feel spread too thin, burned out — and that’s even with a job I find extraordinarily fulfilling. I can’t stand to be on Zoom outside of work unless I really have to, which is a problem because it’s the only way to healthily see loved ones outside Seattle.
The hope of last Rosh Hashanah feels hard to recapture. I think it’s because we’ve been in limbo for too long, stopping and starting our cycles of normalcy to the rhythms of a virus most of us hadn’t heard of two years ago. It’s unnatural, measuring our lives from one lockdown to another, in the days between mask mandates, between heat domes and hurricanes, from an election to the end of our longest war that has left thousands in danger. For me, that might be because the only way to live and function is to actively avoid processing everything as it happens. How else can we have adapted to a world in which we routinely read stories about overflowing hospitals? But that avoidance is taxing, a cognitive load in and of itself. And it makes me less available, less present for those who need me.
In the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we’re supposed to start listening to the blow of the shofar, a ram’s horn that sounds a shrill cry. I learned in school that it’s supposed to wake us up, snap us out of whatever fog is distracting us. It’s the beginning of a cycle of holidays during which we’re supposed to confront our sins and seek forgiveness, in the hopes of having our names inscribed in the Book of Life. The idea is that we’re being judged, but through acts of atonement and self-improvement, we have a chance to change the final ruling. A finite window to pack with good deeds and growth.
For me, it’ll be an exercise in solitude. Because of the virus, I didn’t see my family until June. It was a brief visit, one that culminated in the promise of a return trip this fall for the High Holidays. We’re vaccinated, but this variant transmits quickly. My beloved grandpa is 90, and my niece, who grew from an infant to a whole tiny person over the course of this pandemic, is still way too young to be inoculated. Any sense of comfort and love I’d feel from being there is outweighed by the tiniest chance that I could potentially endanger them.
I will take this time to engage with the text and ideas of this holiday. I will confront everything I’ve been pushing down and ask myself how to be a part of the answer. Maybe I’ll even walk to Volunteer Park to cast away my mistakes in the form of bread crumbs, another Rosh Hashanah tradition. I’ll try to wake up and hope I can stay awake.
Rosh Hashanah is a religious holiday, but if the idea of a new start right now feels the slightest bit hopeful or empowering to you, I invite you to end your year early and imagine the possibilities of how we can live differently. How we can patiently work within the systems that have made the world what it is today, while simultaneously working slowly to build a new one. We can only do so if we allow ourselves to look beyond the current dreary moment that we’re in. Slice up an apple, dip it in honey, and maybe, if you’re feeling a certain way, join us in asking whichever power you pray to for a good and sweet new year.
Joy Resmovits is an award-winning journalist based in Seattle whose work has focused on special education, educational equity, other social issues. At The Seattle Times, she led the first newspaper team in America to cover the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on schooling. Recently, she started working as senior editor, local impact at The Trace, a national newsroom covering gun violence.
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