Queering the Jewish Holidays: How I Celebrate Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur

Happy almost New Year, Jewish queers! We’re less than a week away from Rosh Hashanah, with Yom Kippur following 10 days later, and I want to talk about how we all celebrate the High Holidays, the most important holy days of the Jewish year.

We’ve already written about how we celebrate these holidays through food – specifically, Lizz’s mom’s Lokshen Kugel, my mom’s honey cake, and my mom’s South African bulkas – and last year Riese put together two extremely well researched lists, 36 influential Jewish LGBTQ women and non-binary humans in honor of Rosh Hashanah and 18 influential lesbian and bisexual Jewish women in honor of Yom Kippur, which I strongly encourage you to read or reread right now.

Today I’m going to share with you some rituals and practices that my friends and I do to celebrate the High Holidays.

Resolutions

I know not everyone is enthusiastic about making New Year’s Resolutions, but I love any excuse to reevaluate my life and my actions and deliberately take into account what I want to focus on in the upcoming year. Because of that, I make resolutions on Rosh Hashanah and on New Year’s Eve – the more resolutions the better! To me, a resolution doesn’t have to be something designed to highlight my flaws or be unsustainable or unattainable – you better believe I am not resolving to “lose weight!!!” or “go to bed by 9pm every night!!!” I would rather view resolutions as intentional positive actions. For example, this year some of my resolutions include prioritizing my writing and creativity, making sure the folks in my life who matter to me can feel my love and appreciation even when we’re far apart, and holding myself accountable to deadlines. My friend Al plans to make a new vision board this Rosh Hashanah, and my friend Mel introduced me to 10Q, a website that asks you to answer 10 soul-searching questions in the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and then seals your answers in a digital vault until next year when you’ll receive them via email! I’m extremely supportive of any practice that will help a person create meaningful and affirming resolutions.

Gathering

Growing up, my family always celebrated Jewish holidays in community. My mother is a natural party planner and host, and she used these superpowers to make sure no one we knew ever felt left out or alone on a holiday. She hosted a variety of impressive Jewish holiday meals over the course of my childhood, but her Yom Kippur Break Fast events were (and still are!) most impressive of all. She would spend weeks baking and preparing and at the end of Yom Kippur, a 25-ish hour fasting period, 40+ humans would gather in our home and share food, warmth, and conversation. Some of these folks would be close family or friends, and some would be people my mom had just met. Long before I learned about chosen family through the queer community, my mother taught me about it. As an immigrant from South Africa who had very little family in the USA, my mom has spent her life making connections with people who are not related to us by blood but who are very clearly our family. Thanks to my mom, it’s my instinct to gather with people on the High Holidays. If I hear that someone doesn’t have plans for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur and wants to make some, whether we’re close or not, I invite them to join me.

Apple Magic

My understanding of Rosh Hashanah is that in celebrating the first day of the new year with joy and abundance, we are setting the stage for a plentiful year to come. This may come from the cheerful song we used to sing when I was in kindergarten at my Jewish Day School in Toronto – “dip the apples in the honey for a happy sweet new year!” We eat round sweet foods on Rosh Hashanah to usher in a round sweet year – apples, honey, pomegranates, round challah, bulkas… yum. As a self-identified Jewitch, it brings me a lot of joy to see and experience the ways in which Jewish tradition and Pagan tradition overlap and compliment one another. Something I like to do to celebrate Autumn Equinox is an apple magic ritual my friend Sue taught me, and it works beautifully for Rosh Hashanah, too.

You can gather as a group or do this by yourself. If you can go to an apple orchard (my personal plan for Rosh Hashanah this year! I’m so excited!) that’s amazing, but if not then using store bought apples is just fine. Sit in a circle or sit with yourself and tell as many stories about apples that you can, say all the things you can make with apples, and/or make an apple craft. At the end of your circle, cut an apple in half to reveal the pentacle inside and acknowledge that apples are magic, just like you and just like me. If you want to and everyone consents, cut an apple slice for each person and have them dip the slice in honey and feed it to the person on their left. You can also make apple sauce, apple butter, or an apple pie together as a group when your circle is complete.

For the non-witchy or time-crunched amongst us, cutting up an apple, drizzling the slices with honey, and shoving the deliciousness in your mouth works just fine, too.

Tashlich

When I was a kid, my synagogue congregation would go to a nearby lake to perform Tashlich, the act of casting away our sins. My specific congregation would throw bread in the water, though while doing research for this article, I’ve just learned that apparently that’s controversial and many sources say it’s prohibited. Anyway, the point of this story is that when you throw bread around a lake in early September in Toronto, lots of ducks come over to see what you’re up to and eat the bread. As such, for many many years, I strongly believed that ducks were an integral part of the practice of Tashlich and couldn’t figure out how folks successfully cast away their sins if they didn’t have any ducks around to… ingest them? I dunno, kid brains are weird. Anyhow, that was just a little anecdote that I thought you might enjoy! My adult truth is that I still love Tashlich because being outside, specifically near water, feels very sacred to me. My friend Ezra told me that she often does a Keshet Tashlich meet up which sounds like a delightfully queer idea, one that we should all definitely copy.

New Moon Rituals

Rosh Hashanah always falls on a new moon because the Jewish calendar is literally set up around the moon cycles, and so I personally like to treat Rosh Hashanah like an extra special new moon ceremony. For me that looks like setting aside time for myself and my brain to breath, lighting a candle, thinking about something new I’d like to focus on (an emotion, a project, a relationship, etc.), pulling a tarot card or doing a tarot spread, and journaling. If you have a regular new moon practice, Rosh Hashanah is a great time to really amplify that. This year I’ve been working with the Many Moons workbook and I love it and strongly recommend it.

Inhabit Your Body

Fasting brings up a lot of intense emotions for a lot of humans, especially humans who have a hard time existing in their bodies. Not all Jews fast on Yom Kippur for a variety of reasons, and I’m not here to judge whether you do or do not choose to partake in the fast. Some years I do fast and some years I do not. But, when I spoke to a bunch of queer Jews, every single one of them brought up the fact that fasting makes them feel a whole range of emotions. As queers, we hold so much trauma in and around our bodies, and as such performing an act that forces us to be so aware of our physical bods can be extra challenging. I particularly love how Ezra articulated it to me: “I try to be really present and connected to my body during the experience of fasting. Which like, given gender feels and queer body feels and being an eating disorder survivor… certainly is something.”

I invite you to inhabit your body during the High Holidays, whatever that means to you. I invite you to love your body and to feed it and nourish it this year, whatever that means to you.

Those are some rituals and activities that feel special to me and my friends when we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I hope you’ll leave some comments telling me how you celebrate! Shanah Tovah!

Vanessa is a queer feminist writer and photographer currently based in New York. She really misses Portland. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 255 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. I love these suggestions! I’m particularly excited to do 10Q.

    Also! My mom is also an immigrant from South Africa, and she too hosts an epic break fast every year. She’s never made bulkas, though…

    • omg!! i have never connected with another queer person who also has a mom from South Africa! i just got very very very excited. is it too weird to ask where you live? you don’t have to tell me but if you feel comfortable i’m so curious – we live in the Boston area but spent my childhood in Toronto with a million other Jewish South African immigrants.

      ps: strongly recommend you make the bulkas for break fast this year. you won’t regret it!

  2. This is just delightful and great. Really feel visible, thank you! How I celebrate is at my parent’s house where both sides of the family come together as one. We host it in the backyard because it’s California so it’s still warm and dry at night. There is always loads of Middle Eastern food, usually loads of chicken wings.

  3. I love this. I too live in Portland, but I haven’t celebrated the high holy days for many years. Unless you count eating apples and honey because yum. Maybe I will go to an apple orchard! What a lovely idea.

    I started doing 10Q a few years ago and I strongly recommend it to everyone, Jewish or not. I didn’t even realize it was a Jewish thing until last year, because they keep that info pretty low key on the website.

    They seem to want it to be for everyone. The funniest thing is that when they show me my answers to the question they just asked me from the previous year, they’re nearly identical. Glad to know I’m consistently me! That actually was a huge point of growth for me.

    • i totally count eating apples and honey! but i know what you mean – i had a hard time finding formal jewish community things to do in Portland. now that i’m back on the east coast i’m sure i could find something, but a lot of the smaller DIY options still feel better to me.

      and yes, that’s such a real feeling re: 10Q! i always forget what i wrote the year before and then i reread it and i’m like…oh. yep, still me.

  4. Always happy for Jewish content here, thanks Vanessa and shanah tova!

    (Or “shaman tobaccos” as the autocorrect has it.)

    I love “Jewitch”! Fun fact: the Spanish “bruja” comes from the Hebrew “baruch” (a super common word in prayers that means “blessed”) because medieval Spaniards decided all Jews and Jewish prayers were super creepy and witchy.

    Oh, and finally, apples and honey are so good! Every year I wonder why we only eat them once a year.

  5. I’ve had a complex relationship to this time of year for a long time. Fasting was something that felt both incredibly cleansing to me and also I often used as a weapon against myself or that triggered some ugly past experiences with disordered eating and self love. But since I got diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and my doctors have taken it off the table for me, I’ve been grieving mourning access to a ritual that felt that powerful, intimate, and personal and have been struggling to find something that fills that void.

    One thing I’ve been working on is writing and reflecting on a personal viddui on self love to confront and seek forgiveness for the myriad ways I am not kind with my body and heart. It doesn’t feel on the scale of a fast, but it’s nice to have something that’s just mine and that makes me feel fast-level naked.

  6. Vanessa thank you so much for this! I’ve been doing 10Q for years and love it, but as a queer jewess who broke with zionism years ago, I’ve really missed the communal rituals and gathering components of the high holy days that I participated in with my intensely zionist community growing up. I’ve found a congregation in my city that aligns with my politics, but it’s been hard to regularly attend services without any jewish friends who also practice. This article inspired me to organize my own gathering to celebrate the autumn equinox, and write a spell for me and my friends that incorporates the apple spell, some rosh hashanah/tashlich inspired components, and some symbols of havdala. My friends are all so excited to do it, and for the first time since I was a kid I feel seen and held in my belief without having to compromise my values 🙂 shanah tovah!

  7. hi i love this

    there’s this hebrew song by ofra haza:

    After the high holidays, everything will be renewed
    The daily routine will be renewed and will return
    The air, the dust, the rain, and the fire
    Even you, even you will be renewed

    and this one by rachel shapira:

    The farmers are noticing
    the changing sky
    The neighbors are preparing
    for the high holy days.

    Someone is thinking of you
    and transcribing your deeds
    Hurry home
    with the cool wind
    Hurry home
    with the cool wind

    The tangerines are ripening in the orchard,
    at their appointed time.
    The teachers are coughing
    and going to sleep early.

    I’ve already spotted a winter songbird
    And maybe it’s just my imagination, but
    Another heat wave broke yesterday
    and now it’s back to school
    Another heat wave broke yesterday
    and now it’s back to school

    What will come and what will pass?
    the journalists ask
    While along the coastal highway,
    squill flowers congregate

    What do the evening newspapers’
    headlines announce?
    Hurry home
    with the cool wind
    Hurry home
    with the cool wind

  8. As an atheist, non-Zionist Jew, I have some complicated feelings… but for me, the pros of our culture outweigh the cons. I love attitudes of reflection and gratitude entrenched in our customs. I’ve always lived in very goyim-dominated cities, so sharing our customs has become a favourite pastime.

    Usually for Yom Kippur, I host friends for a day/evening of reflection and quiet hangouts. I tell them I’ll be fasting (but still drinking water/decaf tea… the not drinking water thing is cray…), but that I don’t expect them to, and I’ll provide tea and light candles but ask no food be brought. Everyone is encouraged to bring a project, whether that’s art, writing, a craft, or something else that makes them feel like they are both reflecting and creating. It’s super hugge-ly!

    Rosh Hashana, like most holidays, I throw a dinner for (mostly) goy, where I lead off prayers and explain things. This year I’m having my partner’s Chinese family sit down for their first ever Ashkenazi meal… should be interesting!

    There is something in our culture about matriarchs and hosting. At least in my family, the aunts/great-aunts who ‘got’ each of the high holidays were the most respected, with a pecking order (Rosh Hashana > Passover > Hannukah). Despite resisting most of the expectations impressed upon me because they were ‘for women’, learning how to be a good host felt too important to ignore. Maybe it’s ego, but I really want to be known as the go-to in the family for awesome high holiday dinners. Having a waitlist for Passover with a humanist queer haggadah is the most affirming thing ever (although honestly my vegetarian matzoh ball soup game needs work).

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking piece… clearly you started my reflecting early 🙂

    • wow, this comment is amazing and gives me so much to think about, too! i think that is one of my favorite things about Jewish culture and holidays – there really is an emphasis on discussion and learning and investigating and growing and acknowledging all opinions…or at least, the Judaism i was raised with always prioritized those things.

      the “pecking order” point in your comment made me laugh so much – i know EXACTLY what you mean and my mom is definitely HBIC in our friend circles for that (we don’t live close to family so there’s no familial pecking order, but like, everyone knows not to miss out on my mother’s amazing holiday celebrations, ya know?).

      and i absolutely love your description of how you celebrate Yom Kippur. this year i’m hosting a break fast with a new friend in my new town, but perhaps next year i will be able to host folks in the way you describe. it sounds amazing.

      thank you so much for sharing your reflections with us, and shanah tovah to you. <3

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