This essay was originally published before blogging existed or almost anyone had ever heard of the Internet. It was the first installment in what was a regular column called “On the Road… Back” in what turned out to be a short-lived weekly newspaper called the New Jersey Jewish Post. This column was entitled, “Home For The Holidays.”
And, please be kind. I was… very young, even for me: The date of this column is September 5, 1988.
As summer ebbs and the nights turn cool and crisp, Jewish families share many of the same concerns as other families. Children return to school, or, in the case of older children, head off — maybe for that first exciting time — to college. Jewish families, though, also think of this time of year as heralding the approach of “the Holidays,” which usually entails a pause in the back-to-school routine and, in the case of young people going out-of-town, an all-too-brief (for the parents, anyway!) return home to celebrate the High Holidays together.
It was around this time of year that my parents had sent me, their oldest, off to college, and the excitement was palpable for all of us. Though the school was only perhaps 15 miles from my parents’ home, it could have been a thousand. I was living on my own for the first time, and thrown into an environment — an entire world — for which nothing in my previous eighteen years could have prepared me.
My college was not the kind of place you send your child if broadening his Jewish horizons is foremost in your mind. The school’s reputation for academic distinction was second only to its renown as a bastion of “WASP elitism,” and much of the allure of it was the stamp of approval it provided for upward mobility in non-Jewish society — a guarantee of future “success.” Nonetheless, my parents, who had always endeavored to provide my brother and me with a strong “Jewish identity,” were concerned that we should have Jewish friends at college and hoped especially for a Jewish roommate. Imagine my surprise — and their wary amazement — upon learning that my roommate in this Ivy League citadel was an orthodox boy, also from New Jersey, who kept Shabbat and Kashrut and attended the on-campus minyan hours before I would even begin to stir from my bed.
I had never really known an orthodox person before, and it would be a mistake to say we hit it right off. He was somewhat aloof — maybe a little “yeshivish” I thought— and I was something of a rock-and-roller. (We would later become good friends and lived together for two more years.) In a matter of weeks, though, my eyes were opened to how a person — let’s call him Moshe — lived a distinctive and proud Jewish life in the very heart of assimilation. My growing respect for him wasn’t hurt by the fact that he was extraordinarily bright, from the top of his yeshiva high school class, with a very strong science background and near-perfect board scores. Surely this was not a throwback to the Dark Ages as I had expected!
As the Yomim Tovim rolled around, I asked my roommate if he was going to go home for the “High Holidays,” as I was. He answered me with a remark which never left me, but which took me years and years to begin to understand. “High Holidays?” he asked. In a patient, earnest way, he said, “Actually, there isn’t really any day that’s ‘holier’ than Shabbat.”
I was completely taken aback. I had just never thought of Shabbat that way. Shabbat was not part of my life. Saturday was the day we went down to the stadium and watched the Big Game against Yale. But planted in my head throughout that Yom Tov season was this idea of having a “holy day” every week.
Years later, when I was studying in yeshiva myself — partly as a result of the “consciousness-raising” I experienced from three years with Moshe — I would finally taste Shabbat and learn what it meant for a day to be “holy.” Once a week I put on my best clothes, shine my shoes, dine festively, sing my heart out, pray and hear the Torah read in synagogue. Even more than the way I left college behind when I came “home for holidays,” I leave the material world behind without even “going” anywhere.
And yet paradoxically, the Yomim Tovim did not lose significance when I made Shabbat part of my life. Rosh Hashana was not diminished by losing its status as the prime “Jewish time of the year,” even though it now had to share its status as “the holidays,” not only with my old friend Yom Kippur, but also with Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. On the contrary, consciousness of the Jewish year — of the cycles starting with daily prayers, to the Shabbat-centered week, to the celebration of Rosh Chodesh every month, and even beyond years to shmitta years and the like — enhanced my appreciation of the festivals. And by hooking up with my heritage, I learned that “time” is not only in the future but has preceded me as well.
Now, rather than a short detour back on the trip away from my Jewish home, on the way to the seductive world of assimilation, the Yomim Tovim are an annual celebration that take place among the constant affirmations of what it means to be a Jew. Celebrating the festivals is no longer an incongruity for me but the logical culmination of day-to-day Jewish life. Only a couple of months into college, I’d learned more than many of us would take away even after four years, though it would take me that much time to realize what Moshe had been saying on that bright autumn day.