L’shana tova, friends. The Jewish High Holidays are almost here, though depending on how the country you live in has handled the pandemic you may or may not have a concept of what month it is right now, let alone what day. Personally, I am shocked that tomorrow is Friday, September 18, the first night of Rosh Hashanah. And yet it’s true. The Jewish year 5781 is upon us. How will we celebrate this year?
I’m going to be honest with you: I feel anything but festive, joyous, or ready to welcome in a round sweet new year. I live in Portland, Oregon and my state, along with the entire west coast of the US, is currently on fire. This year has been so hard, and life does not show any signs of getting any easier. And yet: The earth still turns. We are still here. The High Holidays arrive, and with them, the Jewish New Year, whether we are ready or not, whether time feels relevant or not, whether we are filled with joy or filled with despair. In this time of uncertainty, there is something comforting about the ritual of an annual festival. I am trying to accept that. I am trying to find ways to access joy.
I’ve been thinking about how to celebrate the Jewish High Holidays during a pandemic, and this is what I’ve come up with.
Attend a virtual service
For some people, attending synagogue on the High Holidays is important – as many of us can probably attest, lots of Jews who completely avoid synagogue all year round will make an exception for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If attending services is important to you but you know that going indoors to pray and sing with a lot of other humans during a pandemic is not the right move (correct!), you have a lot of options this year because going virtual means you’re not limited to the congregations in your specific location. Some services are being offered for free which makes them far more accessible than expensive in-person High Holiday ticketed options. Another exciting perk of virtual services? If you’re looking for a specifically queer congregation, this is your year! One Autostraddle reader wrote in to the A+ box about this:
“I wanted to flag that this year provides a unique opportunity to participate in a Queer Jewish service for those outside the major cities with Queer congregations… For example, both Bet Mishpachah in DC and CBST in NYC are doing online services at no-cost (Bet Mish is asking for a donation). These are Queer-founded shuls using Queer self-created liturgies; it’s not a mainstream congregation that is “inclusive.””
Thank you Rachel for this note! If you are going to watch a service from your home, Autostraddle staff writer Ari Monts suggests creating a sacred space specifically for this activity. Creating a specific space and committing to the ritual of attending services even if you aren’t physically leaving your home space can make the act feel more defined and meaningful.
At this point in the pandemic many of us are experiencing video conferencing fatigue, but the truth is these gatherings are still the safest way to put a large group of humans in one place. There’s also the added bonus of being able to congregate with people who live far away. This year I’m going to “gather” with my family over Zoom on Friday night and with some friends over Zoom on Sunday night, and I feel just as excited about these High Holiday celebrations as I would about attending an actual IRL gathering… especially because both events allow me to connect with people I love in Massachusetts, California, New York, and Texas!
If you’d like help or inspiration planning a digital gathering or if you want to create something larger and invite more people to your High Holiday plans, check out HighHolidays@Home and Here For, two online resources that can help.
Wear a mask and stay outside
If you are going to see people in person for the High Holidays, wear a mask and stay outside.
Many of us have taken advantage of the warmer summer months to spend time face to face with people outside of our direct pods. If you are 6+ feet away from another human and wearing a mask while hanging out outside, your exposure risk for COVID-19 is very low. Just don’t go inside anyone else’s house!
Some synagogues are hosting outdoor services, and some families will be gathering in backyards and parks. Before the wildfire smoke made being outside an impossibility in Portland, some friends and I were planning to do a socially distanced Rosh Hashanah celebration – I envisioned us outdoors, 10-15 feet apart, eating food from separate bowls and with our own utensils. We’ve had to cancel because of the air quality in Portland, but for folks in places where breathing outside is not impossible, I think there are ways to do this safely.
Cook for yourself and your loves
Is it a stereotype to say most Jewish holidays are based around food? Sure. Is it also true? Yes. Just because we’re in a pandemic and can’t currently gather around a table filled with food to eat communally, that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the High Holidays with the traditional rituals of cooking, and we can still share this food with our loves – just not via potluck!
Autostraddle has published a lot of recipes for the High Holidays over the years; here’s our collection: Gey in Kikh: Apple-Stuffed Challah for Rosh Hashanah!, Get Baked: The Best Honey Cake For Rosh Hashanah (Or Any Time!), Get Baked: Lokshen Kugel for Rosh Hashanah, Get Baked: Vegan Olive Oil Challah, Get Baked: Bulkas (Yeast Buns), A South African Jewish Tradition. All of these recipes are perfect for Rosh Hashanah or for breaking the fast after Yom Kippur, and if you double your batch, you can do a contactless drop off for your fellow Jewish pals so they can enjoy your kitchen rituals, too.
Growing up as a Jewish kid, I thought the act of giving tzedakah was simply about donating money. I learned to do it before Shabbat and before Jewish holidays, and I learned it was something we should enjoy as an act to make the world a better place. As an adult, I learned the act of tzedakah is even more powerful than I originally understood – the root of the word literally means justice in Hebrew.
Tzedakah – donating money (or time or resources or anything else you may have that someone else does not) – is a cornerstone of Judaism and a ritual that I hope we are all baking into our day to day lives in 2020. Not everyone can afford to give, but if you are able to, thinking critically about how to redistribute your resources is a great way to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and every single day of the year.
Take a social media break
As I said at the start of this article, we are all experiencing digital communication fatigue. I love social media and I think it can be a great tool, but I also know that my doomscrolling stops me from sleeping, that the apps encourage performativity in a way I’m not always comfortable with, and that a lot of the work I want to get done before the world ends is deep internal personal work that cannot be quantified on an Instagram story or achieved by making the perfect hilarious tweet.
The High Holidays are a great time to take an intentional social media break and sit with your own brain and your own heart with no interruptions from your screen. Think deeply about what you’re hoping to accomplish this upcoming year – not as a means to be productive or gain capital but as an exercise in thinking about who you want to be as a person, what you want your soul to look like at the end of your days. Journal with Yom Kippur as a prompt – who are the people you have wronged this year? Would they benefit from an apology or are there better ways you can make amends?
What is the internal work you still need to do? How will you set about doing it this year? We do not have time to wait.
Adapt your old rituals to our new reality
This may be obvious as a large majority of this list is doing just that, but the truth is you already know how to celebrate the High Holidays – and you can take that knowledge and customize it to fit the pandemic, because we’ve all become skilled at that.
In 2018 I wrote Queering the Jewish Holidays: How I Celebrate Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur and I still stand by that list – with the exception of gathering a large group in person, everything I suggested in that article can be modified to work with pandemic precautions and protocol.
I’d love to hear how you’re celebrating in the comments, and I hope that no matter what you’re doing, you’re able to find a tiny piece of joy, a small bite of sweetness. Amen.
This year, Rosh Hashanah starts at sundown on Friday, September 18 and ends at sundown on Sunday, September 20. Yom Kippur starts at sundown on Sunday, September 27 and ends with break fast at sundown on Monday, September 28.