During the months of Elul and Tishri, when we’re in the midst of the High Holiday season, things are busy. Kids are in (and out) of school and activities, parents are facing the fall rush of activities in their own work lives. Things are rushed. However, if you’re going to synagogue and have even a moment to reflect, you’re being asked to examine yourself. What have you done right this year? What’s gone wrong? What could you do better?
Some years, I’m thinking about my failings, or I get mesmerized by the long list of things that one could do wrong when we list the confession of sins. Other years, I’m so concerned by holiday meals or my kids’ behaviour that I sing along, but my focus is not really on the most important holiday tasks at hand.
Recently though, I got to thinking about this a different way. Instead of focusing exclusively on how we’ve gone wrong, or how we could do better, I wondered, of all the things in the world to fix, what are my top priorities? How could I focus on a few things that are most important?
When we wish people happy new year, we often wish them a happy and healthy year. It’s hard to work towards happiness – and, to be honest, I’m not sure I’d know when I got there. Working on health seems like a given to some people, and is completely ignored by others. What does it mean? Well, for some it means taking medicines, or being able to afford their medicines. For others, it might mean exercise or better food choices, or even being able to purchase healthy foods.
We also mention, in Jewish tradition, an effort to strengthen our commitment to Judaism. Maybe that means going to services more, doing more mitzvot (commandments) or doing more to help others. It might mean offering your kids tools so that they can learn about their faith. For some, it means helping others get to Jewish events – offering a ride, for instance, if the person is unable to drive or walk – or making them feel included and valued when they get there.
People also may have big holiday meals with family and friends. This can be wonderful, and trying. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes family gatherings force us to confront things that we’d rather not deal with. (Maybe it’s an uncle’s politics or a child’s misbehaviour, or the aging of a beloved parent.) Do you prioritize family? Do you commit to supporting and caring for your family, both those related by blood and those who you choose? Are you willing to travel long distances to see relatives? What about your family friends, those to whom you choose to feel related?
Awhile ago, I was chatting with someone about all my uncles and aunts. She expressed wonder at how many relatives I had. It took me a bit to realize what she meant. Where I grew up, in Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., many families had moved to work in the U.S. capital. It meant that they weren’t near their families, so we created extended families. All those aunts and uncles were close friends with my parents. I played with kids at those folks’ houses, ate dinner at their holiday tables and learned from them about what it was to be part of a loving family. Our Jewish customs varied, our DNA was different, but our effort included everyone.
The person I spoke with seemed alarmed and uncomfortable with the fact that I called all these people who weren’t blood relatives aunt or uncle. Yet, it was a time and place when many people didn’t live near family.
Some families had been decimated by the Holocaust, so it seemed entirely logical to us. In our circle, there were people who didn’t have grandparents – they had died in Europe. Some had no cousins, either. This was true among people I knew as a kid, and continues to be true. In my husband’s family, for example, I know people who lost many relatives and whose family structures, even in 2018, continue to resonate with that trauma.
This extended family friend concept is also related to our priorities. For me, personally, it’s key, and I choose to continue this practice. Why reinforce alienation for those who lack supportive extended family? My kids have a “tante” who made quilts for their beds and sends them gorgeous handmade gifts. She’s not my blood relative, but we’re part of her family. And we serve as honourary aunt and uncle for a 2-year-old in Montreal, as well.
Recently, I received an email that pointed out the Winnipeg Jewish Federation’s priority action areas for fall 2018, and I loved it. This action document lists many of our community’s Jewish concerns and priorities – many of which, no doubt, are similar to the Vancouver Jewish community’s concerns and priorities.
The Winnipeg Federation document is a good start. While some may think that the points are ambitious, other aspects are simply part of how a community – an extended family – should act. We should care about others, full stop. We should try to include everyone in Jewish life regardless of what they can afford. While it may seem like an enormous goal to “mitigate poverty,” it’s easy to pick an apple tree in the neighbourhood and donate the fruit to the food bank. Nor is it a big deal to bring your kids to visit an older person to help reduce their isolation.
Instead of focusing on the enormity of the individual points, we can instead point to our priorities for the new year. For instance: it improves our health to attend gatherings, socialize and engage in learning in multi-age settings.
I don’t know about expecting happiness, but we can adjust our priorities to include health, well-being and Jewish supports for one another. This is possible – and, to borrow Theodor Herzl’s phrase: “If we will it, it is no dream,” so make your priorities and dream bigger. It’s well worth considering. Happy 5779, everybody!
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.