Days of Awe

(Liya Rechtman)– The meaty reticence of Shofar still clings to my lips and my fingertips are glazed with cream cheese oils as I hand in my last ticket of the day. I board the megabus bus, carrying only two tokens from the weekend: a round, braided Challah and a postcard featuring a boatful of drag queens waving in the sun. It is only 5:30 in the afternoon; the bus is hot and packed with fellow commuters making the trip up the Pioneer Valley from the City. I have been traveling since 1:30 and don’t expect to make it back to my dorm room until at least 10:00.

In the Muslim world, the obligatory trip to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, at least once in a lifetime is called Haj. For a Muslim, this trip is a sacred pilgrimage, the fifth pillar of Islam. The journey begins on the 8th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month in the Islamic calendar. Millions of pilgrims walk along Muhammed the Prophet’s steps around the Kaaba and between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, the Zamzam Well, and the Mount Arafat, performing ancient rituals at each stop.

The Arabic word “Haj” is almost exactly the same as the Hebrew word “Chag,” which we translate to “holiday,” or more precisely “Holy Day” in English. In ancient Israel, Jews too would mark their calendar year by making three annual pilgrimages to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. On Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot, Jews would enter the temple with sacrifices. This was a time at which Judaism was a centralized religion and nationality, focused in only one distinct part of the world.

Today, those festivals do not necessitate the same pilgrimage practices that they did in the ancient world. After the destruction of the Second Temple (in 70 BCE), Jews began to create communities outside of the historical land of Israel. This was called the “diaspora,” the spreading out of a people that had initially been of one nationality throughout the world. Jews became an international community, each segment of which took on part of the characteristics of the groups that physically surrounded them. Thus, Jews look very different from each other and practice their religion in a wide variety of ways. Before the Holocaust, nearly every country in the world contained a Jewish population.

And yet, each Jewish community still turned towards the historical land of Israel in prayer, as a homeland from which they were in exile. The concept of pilgrimage to sacred places still remained with the Jewish framework despite the lack of access to an actual place where the people of Israel could convene. Throughout Jewish history and writing, there is a constant yearning for return – for most Jews, this longed-for return was to place where they had never been and a land completely unlike their physical homelands of everywhere from Algeria, to Russia to Milwaukee. The creation of a physical, legally sanctioned State of Israel was for many Jews the answers to their prayers. My grandparents, raised in the Zionist movement in South Africa, left their homes to join communities in the newly establish Jewish State.

Until very recently, I resented my family for “opting out” of our heritage. When my parents married, they made the decision to raise children in the United States, nearby my mother’s Jewish American, Brooklyn-born-and-bred family, instead of in Israel with my father’s. As you ACVoice readers probably know, I have long struggled with the concept of return, of pilgrimage and being estranged from my Holy Land. I have thought long and hard about joining the army, perhaps even at the expense of attending Amherst College at all. At the end of last year I had all systems go to leave Amherst and join an ambulance corps in Tel Aviv… indefinitely.

Today marks the beginning of the new Jewish Year with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. This is not a traditional pilgrimage festival and my journey was not a traditional Haj.

Last year at Rosh Hashanah, I gave a sermon at evening services in part despairing that I could not find space to be religiously observant on Amherst College campus. This year I look forward with a different approach. Yes, the atmosphere of campus is not all that conducive to religious expression (a conversation for another post), but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find/create sacred space. Memorial Hill, to name the easiest example, typifies sacred communal space here. I mean, who hasn’t sat down for a second to ponder as the sun set – at least at some point during freshman year? The area is public, open, and easy to pass through, yet it also serves as grounds for the occasional serious conversation, or introspective moment.

This morning, as I stood at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by a congregation comprised of primarily gay men in a service led by my-mother-the-Rabbi, throwing chopped up pieces of whole wheat bread (meant to represent a year’s worth of sins) into the rough, I couldn’t help but feel that I was in sacred space. This is not traditional but it is, by all means, my tradition. My mode of prayer, and my concept of family are not customary but they are my custom.

Happy New Year, ACV!
– Liya Rechtman ‘14