This story started in a simple way… It took place years ago. It was a Saturday afternoon, mid-September, Dad was at work and Mom and I traveled to Woodbury to visit my Aunt & Uncle.
“I thought that the New Year was on January 1!”
Say what you will about the differences that separate the Jewish world from the rest of the world… and certainly to a kid in America this was brought home in force every December 25th… but that didn’t trouble me as much as the confusion regarding the date for starting a New Year. Talk about being out of step with the rest of the world (and for all I knew, the rest of the Universe)! But to me, this “arbitrary” start to the Jewish New Year in September was upsetting. And I was voicing my annoyance to Uncle Saul.
“We just have a different calendar Jimmy. And our custom is to begin the New Year on the first Day of Tishrei . And our custom is older”.
“Tishrei? I dunno, it sounds like a made up month to me.”
Saul and I happened to be playing gin at the table in the kitchen nook. As a young kid I was developing a knack for the card game. Uncle Saul said I was a “natural”. Casual conversation during play was meant to distract your opponent. The trick was not to let it distract you.
“Why do we have to go to dumb Services at the Synagogue? They’re sooooooooo long. Why not stay home, have a party, wear funny hats, watch Guy Lombardo & the Royal Canadians, watch football and have a good time like we do for the real New Years?”
It never ceases to amaze how my Uncle could recite off by heart long literary passages… Shakespeare, Dickens, Winston Churchill… and even sections of Jewish liturgy.
“Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, (counts and calculates); Who remembers all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles—it will read itself, and everyone’s signature is in it. The great Shofar will be sounded and a still, thin sound will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them—and they will say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!’—for they cannot be vindicated in Your eyes in judgment.”
“Awesome and frightening… trembling and terror will seize them! See what I mean? Oh, that sounds like a good time! Does this sound like a good time to you? Gin!”
“I’ll deal. The knock card is four. There is more to the celebration of the New Year than carrying on like buffoons or watching football on TV.”
Saul continued on.
“On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the Decree!”
“I’m getting an upset stomach! What a great way to spend a New Years, having to get dressed up, sitting thru painful Services that go on forever… and we have to hear about God looking thru this Book of Life determining how people will die. And nothing sounds good… drowning, burning, knifed, eaten by lions or having rocks thrown at you. What about going peacefully in your sleep after living a long successful life? Did you just pick up the Jack of Diamonds?”
“It was the Jack of Hearts. Look at it this way… it’s a day off from school.”
“School or having to sit thru Services. I hate both. It’s like having to choose between walking across broken glass, or across burning coals. My stomach is killing me. And who can understand half the stuff anyway? There’s way too much Hebrew, and what’s in English is funny English… even that’s hard to understand.”
“I’ll knock with two.”
“I knew it! You had a high Heart run! The Jack filled the King, Queen, Ten. I’ll lay off my Nine, you get just eleven points. And who thought up Hebrew anyway… with that confusing alphabet! Between the funny English and the Hebrew, I don’t know which is worse!”
“The “funny” English that is found in the Bible, is the English spoken during the times of King James. Still, Hebrew was the original language of the ‘Book’. Aramaic was added, and then it was translated into Greek, then Latin… then into English.”
“What’s the matter? Upset that you just gave me another Queen?”
“No… I just realized that Rosh Hashanah falls on a Saturday this year! It kills a day off from school!!And Yale has a game at home! I think I am going to throw-up! Thanks for the eight of Clubs! Suuuuuuhweeet!”
“Actually… there is a language that even pre-dates Hebrew! Much older, in fact.”
“Who dealt this mess?”
“That means you have a good hand and you are trying to lull me into a false sense of security. The first language spoken was Basic Rock.”
“Basic Rock? How’d it go?”
“Well… it went something like this: ‘That’s a nice rock you got there’ and ‘Hey! Hey, put down that rock!’ and ‘Don’t come at me with that rock!’ and ‘I have a rock, too! You troglodyte!’ and ‘Shmuel, one step closer and I’m going to chuck this awesome rock square at your jewels and you won’t be able to stand up for a week, you will never have kids and when the other men’s boys are being Bar Mitvahed, you will be crawling around the cave speaking in a high soprano! And… there will be no one to say Kaddish for you!’”
“Maybe God wrote in the Book of Life that this guy Shmuel was going to die by stoning. Gin! And in the third game you’ve just been schneidered!”
“Jimmy… you’re getting too good at this game.”
“Maybe at my Bar Mitzvah, we can replace the Hebrew parts with Basic Rock? I think I can handle Rock. I just hope that my Bar Mitzvah doesn’t fall on a Yale home game! It’s my deal.”