Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, began at sundown on Sunday, Sept. 29 and ends at sundown on Tuesday, Oct. 1. We had the pleasure of celebrating the Jewish new year with an incredibly welcoming family in the Kibbutz of HaHotrim. The celebration was held right near the Maccabi Haifa training field at the childhood home of one of Josh’s teammates with multiple generations of their large family. This was my first Rosh Hashanah celebration and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was certainly a memorable one. Upon the eve of this festive holiday I quickly learned how to say “happy new year” in Hebrew. It was almost as if everyone I crossed paths with muttered “shanah tovah” and the whole world was paused to wish each other a sweet new beginning. We also learned that tradition calls for a white shirt or top, so it was quite the white affair, though some of the kids shirts were the color of grape juice by the end of the night.
Rosh Hashanah is Hebrew for “head of the year,” and though its exact timing on the Gregorian calendar varies, it is a two day holiday to celebrate the beginning of the new year on the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur follows ten days later and the two are combined to make up the “High Holidays.” These are some of the most important and holiest days of the Jewish year. The High Holidays are celebrated as a time for judgment, remembrance, and repentance. This is the time of year to atone for both individual and communal sins committed over the course of the previous year and to hope for a sweet new year.
The holiday consists of many fun and unique traditions that we got to experience first hand. The feast began with a series of blessings. Our hosts were so kind and translated each prayer so that we could understand their significance to the holiday and the culture. Following the prayers, an apple dipped in honey, the most traditional Rosh Hashanah food, is eaten to symbolize the hope for a sweet year. Pomegranates were also consumed to symbolize that we should have as many merits as there are seeds. The challah (traditional bread) that is another tasty tradition we consumed after dipping into the honey. Shallah is round, symbolizing the eternal cycle of life, and again sweet to symbolize the hopes for a sweet new year.
One of the most cringe worth traditions was the fish head used to to remind us that we should be the leader and not the follower or tail. Certainly worth trying to capture the whole experience, but not necessarily something I am devoted to trying again.
The holiday is only complete with an incredible feast. Our hosts did not disappoint and presented us with a boundless amount of the tasty dishes. Some of our favorite dishes included a salmon and chickpea dish, chicken with apricots and figs, spicy carrots, roasted vegetables, roasted potatoes, the honey cake, and apple pie. One of my favorite things about this culture is that they love to eat and they refuse to let you go hungry. I was asked so many times, “You don’t eat?” while more food was placed on my plate. It was also customary to have your wine glass topped off as soon as it looked a little low. I had my first sip of sacramental wine, incredibly sweet and certainly not my style, but it was a fun tradition to be a part of.
My first Rosh Hashanah experience was a perfect testament to the welcoming culture that I have come to know as Israel. Our hosts were some of the most welcoming and genuine people I have met. They welcomed us foreigners into their home, fed us an incredible meal, taught us all about their religion and culture in a way that was not overwhelming, and wished for us to have the sweetest new year.