When I was growing up in my Egyptian Jewish immigrant home, each of the High Holidays was imbued with sacredness, thanks largely to my mother’s efforts to create a meaningful 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 Jewish man, followed the tenets of his faith, praying each morning and attending synagogue each week. But it was my mother who brought to life the seasonal festivals that also characterize Judaism. As a child, I longed to pray with my father and I envied my brother and male cousins who studied and recited the ancient Hebrew; I resented having to polish silver and set the table. But today I’m grateful for my mother’s quiet teachings.
Passover had special meaning for us because our family’s departure from Egypt seemed a reenactment of the ancient Exodus. But Rosh Hashanah, that holy day without explanatory narrative, seemed 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.
While our Ashkenazi neighbors symbolized their wishes for a sweet new year with round challah and apples dipped in honey, we held an 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 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 new fruit of the season: usually fresh fig or persimmon or prickly pear.
These were the ritual foods, painstakingly prepared and then tasted with deliberation and delight after reciting a carefully worded 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 prayers usually involved puns, as my father would explain: 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, the taste of foods, and a prayer for good fortune, 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 more progressive, I might have found my way to Hebrew school and perhaps even seminary, for I always longed to be in closer communion with Divine. As it was, distressed by Judaism’s patriarchal focus, I turned from my family’s faith, while still seeking a form for my devotion. I embraced yoga, Native American ritual and the Goddess, eventually seeking initiation as a Wiccan Priestess—only to find I had been led back to my mother’s practice.
For what was the Rosh Hashanah seder other than a new moon ritual, a circle cast with love, 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 P. Christ, may she be cradled in the womb of the Goddess, called “the intelligent embodied love that is the ground of all being”?
As I grew older, I gained the courage to organize Rosh Hashanah gatherings of my own. Like my mother, I cleaned and shopped and cooked and prepared, taking time away from my ordinary routines. 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 the generations of women before her.
Following my family’s customs, I tried having my brother or a cousin lead the prayers. After all, I still do not read Hebrew, and the habit of deferral to male authority remains firmly embedded. But the men I called on did not approach their role as I had hoped they might. And so, having cleared the space, I began to allow myself to fill it: using what I have learned from all my other practices, as well as all the years of watching my father, I now lead the ritual in all sincerity and humility. As I do so, my heart opens and the words take form.
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 slumber. 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—this year on Zoom—that will bring together my far-flung family (we can be found in California and New York and London and Tel Aviv and this year even in the Alps) in the latest iteration of our ancient ritual of renewal and return.
(An earlier version of this essay appeared in Feminism and Religion in September 2015.)
Joyce Zonana is a writer and literary translator. Her most recent translation, Tobie Nathan’s A Land Like You, a novel about Egypt’s Jews, is available from Seagull Books. Her memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey was published by the Feminist Press. Joyce served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual, and is a contributor to the Abbey of Hope’s Reflectionary, where her writing is accompanied by Deborah Saltz Amerling’s luminous artwork.