When I was growing up in the 1950s in my Egyptian Jewish immigrant home, each of the High Holidays was imbued with sacredness, thanks largely to my mother’s commitment to a creating a harmonious and memorable gathering of family and friends. Around a long table, covered with an embroidered white cloth and set with sparkling silver and delicately fluted china, she served at each season the festive meal that made manifest for us the presence of the Divine.
My father, an Orthodox man who prayed each morning and went regularly to the local Sephardic synagogue in Brooklyn, privately followed the tenets of his faith. But it was my mother, unconsciously devout, who brought the public rituals of our religion to life. As a child, I longed to be at prayer with my father and was envious of the men and boys who studied and recited the sonorous ancient Hebrew; I did not want to be confined to polishing the silver and setting the table. But today, as an adult, I am grateful for the silent teachings bequeathed to me by my mother.
Passover had special meaning for us because our family’s departure from Egypt in 1951 seemed a reenactment of the exodus of the ancient Hebrews; but Rosh Hashanah—that holy day without explanatory narrative—was even purer in its celebration of abundance and blessing, renewal and return. Each year, I looked forward to the new moon in Tishrei that coincided with the arrival of autumn in New York and the beginning of the school year. It seemed especially fitting to mark this time of bright blue skies and fresh clean air as the start of our New Year.
While our Ashkenazi neighbors discreetly celebrated Rosh Hashanah with sweet round challah and apples dipped in honey to symbolize their wishes for a sweet year, we enacted the elaborate, extravagant Sephardic seder.
On our table, the crimson pomegranate seeds my mother had carefully separated from the skin glistened like jewels illumined from within; a pale green jam made from the grated flesh of a gourd, scented with rosewater and studded with thin slivers of blanched almonds, shone similarly with a numinous, interior light. Bowls of black-eyed peas simmered with cinnamon and tomatoes were arrayed beside a delicately-flavored leek omelet, breaded and fried brains, roasted beets, fresh dates, apples, and—best of all—a previously untasted new fruit of the season: usually fresh fig or persimmon or prickly pear.
These were the ritual foods, painstakingly prepared and then consumed with deliberation and delight after the recitation of a specific prayer: “May our mitzvoth (good deeds) be as numerous as the pomegranate seeds”; “May we be as a head and not a tail”; “May the evil of our verdicts be ripped”; “May our enemies depart.” The specific prayers often involved puns, as my father explained: the Hebrew for “gourd” is close to the words for “ripped apart”; “beet” is a homonym for “depart.” To me as a child, this association of the sounds of words with the performance of actions seemed especially charged and magical, as indeed it was: The Word made Flesh. Unconsciously, I knew that around that shining table, I was experiencing the Divine.
Had I been born just a few years later, or had our immigrant Jewish community been a little more liberal, I might have found my way to Hebrew school, and perhaps even gone on to become a rabbi, for I always longed to be in closer communion with Divinity. As it was—alienated by what I experienced as the patriarchal focus of Judaism, I turned away from my family’s faith, while still seeking a form for my devotion. I embraced yoga, Native American rituals and the Goddess, eventually becoming initiated as a Wiccan Priestess—only to find that I had been led back to my mother’s practices.
For what was the Rosh Hashanah seder other than a new moon ritual, a circle cast with love and clear intention, a sharing of cakes and ale, communion? What were we doing other than celebrating the presence of the Divine among us, the embodied Goddess in our lives, what Carol Christ has called “the intelligent embodied love that is the ground of all being” (Rebirth of the Goddess, 107)?
Over time, I gained the courage to create Rosh Hashanah gatherings of my own. Like my mother, I cleaned and shopped and cooked and prepared, taking time away from my ordinary routines of teaching and writing. To chop vegetables, to prepare the pomegranates, to simmer the beans and cook the leeks—each action became a prayer, each gesture a link that bound me to my mother and all the generations of women before her.
Following the custom I inherited from my family, for many years I tried letting my brother, a cousin, or another male lead the prayer as my father did. After all, I do not read Hebrew, and the habit of deferral to male authority is still deep within me. But the men I know do not approach their assignment with the same seriousness with which I intend it. And so, having cleared the space, I now allow myself to fill it: in all sincerity and humility, I lead the ritual, using what I have learned from my Wiccan rituals, as well as all the years of watching my father. As I do so, my heart opens and the words take form. I have come full circle.
I write this during the month of Elul, as the moon waxes in preparation for its return to darkness, and the shofar is sounded daily to awaken us from our slumbers. I await the coming of the next new moon, as I cleanse my inner and outer being, and begin to envision the Rosh Hashanah Seder that will bring my family and friends together in this ancient ritual of renewal and return.
Joyce Zonana is the author of Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, An Exile’s Journey, a memoir about her life growing up in the U.S. as an Egyptian Jewish woman. After participating in Carol Christ’s Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in 1997, she served for a time as Co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. She is currently a Professor of English at Borough of Manhattan Community College and a regular contributor to Lilith Magazine and Nola Diaspora.