Tishrei is the current month in the Jewish calendar. Tishrei has holidays like Florida has hurricanes. In rapid succession, one a week, we get Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the week-long holiday of Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are sort of bookends for the Ten Days of Penitence, or, as they've recently come to be known, the Days of Awe. For Yom Kippur, we went down to a synagogue in the southeast part of town. The rabbi there has built a congregation almost entirely from outreach. As part of that effort he incorporates a great deal of singing into the service, which helps maintain interest and concentration. Yom Kippur prayers last pretty much the whole day, and it can be easy to spend more time fighting the fast than paying attention to the services.
Tunes are not mere distractions from hunger, though, they're an integral part of the service. You grow up hearing certain tunes, year after year, and then when you go off to college or to another shul, you're astonished that people there use different tunes. This can be deadly for a Passover seder, which is so personal and family-oriented, so much so that many people I know go around the table soliciting tunes from people and singing the same songs over and over to different melodies. As a friend of mine put it, "if you don't hear the songs you're used to, you can walk away feeling that you haven't really had a seder at all." The same is true, to a lesser extent, for High Holiday services.
As it happened, this year was a pretty easy fast for me, and for a number of others I spoke to. The weather was cool, which no doubt helped, and we even got some rain in the afternoon, which I have never seen before on Yom Kippur. All in all, for a day on which you're praying for the year to come, not a bad day.
So now, it's time for Sukkot, known to non-Jewish readers of this space as the Feast of Tabernacles. Tomorrow, I build the Sukkah, a temporary structure separate from the main house. In theory, you're supposed to live in the Sukkah the entire week, but most people can't manage that. Instead, we eat all of our meals there.
The other part of the holiday involves something call a Lulav and Etrog. The Etrog is a citrus, not really edible, that's native to Israel. Etrogs are notoriously expensive, and many organizations use them as fundraisers. At one point, my parents lived in Florida, and I tried to plant etrog seeds in their back yard. They moved before we could see the results of the experiment.
The lulav is a bundle of three sets of branches: palm, myrtle, and willow. (Naturally, when Passover falls near Palm Sunday, we'll note the Catholics going to Church with their lulavs...) The lulav and etrog are meant to be shaken in all 6 directions (up, down, front, back, left, right) as part of the holiday, and we also take the lulav and etrog, and proceed around the synagogue.
I remember one year, in DC, we did one of these circuits around the White House, to protest the first Bush Administration's strongarming Israel over some loan guarantees. I remember there being some concern about our ringing the White House, shaking these palms, that people might think we were putting a curse on the place or something similarly absurd.
This was the time James Baker famously comment, to "f--- 'em, they don't vote for us, anyway," and the combination of word and deed probably set back Republican efforts to gain the Jewish vote 20 years. It's not clear that even now, with his unambiguous and clear support for Sharon and Israel, the younger Bush won't suffer from the political sins of the father.