Back when I was a student at UCLA my college job was working part-time as a cantor, leading services Friday night and Saturday morning and all festivals. I was in a “Jewish fraternity,” AEPi, where I also lived. But that did not mean that all members of the house were Jewish, or religiously observant even if they were Jewish.
One year the fall festival season landed squarely on our weekly fraternity meeting night — Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret all occurred on the same night of the week as our required meeting. As I was an officer, my absence was particularly noted, but since AEPi was sort of Jewish, and we had a menorah as a symbol of the fraternity, there wasn’t much anyone could do about it. But it did give rise to the rumor that now “Cohon is inventing Jewish holidays!”
Actually, in September no one needs to invent more Jewish holidays. The fall season for Jews has begun with a plethora of festivals, an extraordinarily rich menu of religious and cultural experiences. From Selichot the week before Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur and on to Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, we experience slightly less than four weeks of very public holidays that range from intensely introspective to boisterously celebratory. By simple count including evenings and mornings, if you are a Reform Jew there are eight festival days in a 28-day period; if you are a Conservative or Orthodox Jew the number jumps to 12 days out of 29. When you add in the Shabbat days, in effect you are looking at 15 days out of 30. Nearly half your time can be spent on ritual and holiday observances, not to mention the preparations beforehand and the cleanup afterward.
A true prayer and ritual marathon. It is as though our Jewish calendar packs a year’s worth of religious and emotional experiences into this short period of time, seeking to touch every aspect of our personalities and lives in some meaningful way: repentance, atonement, remembrance, gratitude and joy. But then, whether we have celebrated all of the rites scrupulously or simply celebrated a few rituals that we personally find more meaningful, they are over. The next holiday down the road is Chanukah — it starts the night before Thanksgiving this year; only 60 more shopping days left! — and that’s simply not on our radar yet.
And while this year every one of these fall festivals fell within the overwhelmed month of September, no matter when the holidays happen they lead to a strange phenomenon. We Jews tend to show up more, to be more Jewishly active, in one way or another, during this season. So afterwards we see no conflict in absenting ourselves until the next high-ticket event comes along: a prominent Jewish speaker or concert, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah or wedding or babynaming, an Israel rally perhaps.
But the real genius of Judaism is actually not in the superstar events, not even in the annual excess of the fall festival cycle. It is in the confirmed daily-ness of the reinforcement and depth that comes from regular involvement in Jewish study and practice. That involvement is best expressed not with a one-time visit, and not even in a month redolent of ritual. It is something we can do regularly and easily.
Immediately after Simchat Torah sounds the closing bell on this season, we begin the most remarkable and longest continuous form of free public education in human history. It is the study of the Torah, beginning with the great text of Genesis. The Torah is the foundational text of all Western civilization, the source of all three great monotheistic religions but also of most of our society’s conceptions of good, evil, holiness and meaning. And it is available for free every week, on Shabbat, at a synagogue near you.
Why not take the time to seek or express your Jewish identity on a regular basis in this 5774 year by exploring one of the greatest texts ever created? And why not do so consistently, in community?
If you choose to do that, this fall festival season will have had a greater impact than all the rites and rituals can ever express. And your new Jewish year will be filled with insight and blessing.
Samuel M. Cohon is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El and host of the Too Jewish Radio Show with Rabbi Sam Cohon and Friends on KVOI AM, www.toojewishradio.com.