How to not F up my first Rosh Hashanah?
September 18, 2006 7:11 AM   Subscribe

First Rosh Hashanah. Tips?

Well, we did his first Christmas, amid much angst, and it went well. Now it's my turn. This weekend I'm joining my boyfriend and his family for Rosh Hashanah, and I'm wondering if there's anything I should know. Of course, I've asked him, but who knows what he knows about social conventions, etc. They're Reform, I know that. (I was raised agnostic, family all Catholic.) He and I are talking about marriage down the line, and if we do get married, & have kids, I would convert, so I want to make sure I don't F it up upon my first Judaism experience with his family, whose opinion is very important to him. He says I don't have to go to temple, but I think I should. He is a little stressed about melding the worlds, and being concerned about whether I'm okay, while also enjoying Rosh Hashanah.

Generally, I'm wondering what to expect at temple and at home, what I should wear, if there's anything I'll be expected to do/say/etc. They're not incredibily religious - much more than I'm used to, but that's not saying much - but VERY pro-Israel. He's given me a rough idea about how his family does it. He says this includes about 4 hours praying in the temple - how on earth does anyone maintain the concentration for that? I don't think of myself as having a short attention span, but I can't imagine not fidgeting if I'm sitting in one place that long. He thinks I should wear something nice to dinner, and a skirt to temple. True?

If there are other tips about other Jewish holidays/or the conversion experience, that would be absolutely welcome as well. (And tips for dealing with other people's hostility towards conversion - I'm starting to encounter that in a shocking way.)
posted by n'muakolo to Religion & Philosophy (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You wouldn't actually be sitting the whole time--there's lots of standing, praying, and singing that move things along. Most high holiday reform services in my experience last 2-3 hours. Generally the only part that makes me fidgety is the sermon (unless the topic is really good), but YMMV.

I would err on the side of conservatism and wear a skirt to services, preferably one that's knee-length or longer. You will probably see women in pants/suits, but the majority will be in skirts or dresses. Nothing too low-cut, either!

What other holidays do you want to know about?
posted by leesh at 7:34 AM on September 18, 2006

I am unfamiliar with the American Reform movement, having for the most part attended a more "conservadox" synagogue myself.

That being said the evening service for first night Rosh Hashana is not that long. If you get bored listening to the choir (if their synagogue has one) you can always read the commentary on the service most siddurs (prayer books) have. If they use the Artscroll siddur, those always have decent commentary on the bottom. Otherwise just stand and sit when everyone else does and you won't stick out too much, probably about as much as the other Jews who only come to synagogue for Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur.

If he says you should wear a skirt then I assume that is the norm at his synagogue and probably should be respected. If you really want to impress, learn the phrase "Shana Tova U'metuka" which is basiaclly "Happy and sweet new year" (hence the honey symbolism)

Once you're home it's a brief blessing on the wine,the bread, and on the apples and honey. And then you eat more than you really should.
posted by PenDevil at 7:42 AM on September 18, 2006

He says this includes about 4 hours praying in the temple - how on earth does anyone maintain the concentration for that?

Reform Jews (I assume since you said "temple" but I guess they could be Reconstructionist)? When do they eat? I've never sat in one place that long for any service except Yom Kippur (when the eating thing is not an issue).

If they are using the standard Reform prayer book for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Gates of Repentance, it has some short meditations at the very beginning of both sections of the book, that are very interesting reading. I must confess that sometimes I flip to this section if I am getting a little bored with the service.

The parts where you stand up are the most important parts, so pay attention.

Eat lots of apples and honey.
posted by grouse at 7:48 AM on September 18, 2006

My wife is Jewish and I am Atheist but we do all the major Jewish holidays.

Generally speaking, if attending a synagogue, do not wear anything made of leather. To be honest, I cannot remember why its frowned upon and that custom may be indicative of the Orthodox synagogues. All I know is that you will see a lot of tennis shoes and not a lot of belts.

For the dinner, most of the siddurs I've used were in Hebrew and English which is nice and helps non-Jewish participants feel a part of the process.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 7:49 AM on September 18, 2006

No leather is generally only on Yom Kippur.
posted by PenDevil at 7:54 AM on September 18, 2006

The leather thing is only applicable on Yom Kippur, so you shouldn't need to worry about that.
posted by leesh at 7:55 AM on September 18, 2006

Rosh Hashanah

mazel tov on your first New Year's celebration! the link above is to a website that gives detailed background on Jewish holidays. I was raised in but do not practice or subscribe to a Lutheran/non-denominational Christian background and my sweetie is part of a Reform Jewish family. Luckily we're never obligated to go to synagogue, but we do partake of the social celebrations. You'll be safe by wishing your Jewish friends a hearty and sincere "Happy New Year!" Be sure to enjoy the lovely food, too, as good food is often a cornerstone of any Jewish celebration. Dressing nicely is advised, better to be dressed up than not.

As far at the conversion issue, try searching for a recent statement by a Conservative rabbi who, sort of in conflict with traditional standards, actually advocated conversion to help increase Judaism's base and to keep "mixed" families from drifting away from Judaism. Sorry I can't remember any specifics to help. Perhaps his reasoning has some wisdom you can borrow. Usually a rabbi's word on something carries a great deal of weight!
posted by kuppajava at 8:06 AM on September 18, 2006

What sort of hostility towards conversion are you encountering? From Jews or non-Jews? Your family?

As far as the very pro-Israel thing, well, regardless of your own position, I'd say right now is a time to just listen and not get involved in political discussions.
posted by canine epigram at 8:10 AM on September 18, 2006

They may eat symbolic foods in addition to the apples in honey (which symbolizes a "sweet" year.) Some of the symbolic foods are based on Hebrew or Yiddish wordplay, others are more physical. For example, some people may eat (or at least display) the head of a fish, to symbolize the hope that they will "be the head and not the tail" in the coming year. Some people eat pomegranates, which symbolize fruitfulness/fertility because they have lots of seeds.

Most of these things are based on tradition, but some people might have fun with it: a local rabbi jokes every year about eating raisins, lettuce, and celery together accompanied by the phrase "lettuce have a raisin celery" (let us have a raise in salary.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:30 AM on September 18, 2006

PenDevil: "No leather is generally only on Yom Kippur."

Thanks for the clarification! I'm not too good at keeping traditions straight.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:43 AM on September 18, 2006

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, and everyone is generally in a good mood after the service (though HUNGRY!, expect lunch shortly afterwards). There will probably be lots of little old Jewish ladies who will want to know all about you and if you plan on marrying so-and-so's son. There will be lots of kissing on the cheek after the service, so don't get freaked when people approach to kiss you (his parents, him, etc). Generally they will say, "L'shanah tovah" ("for a good year", Luh shaanaah toe-vaa) when they kiss you. You can say it back, but if you feel inauthentic, you can just say "Happy New Year".

The nice thing about reform services in your case is that there will be a lot of English, so you won't feel totally lost. I doubt it will take four hours, I'd generally expect 2-3. Everybody loses concentration, I used to play with my mom's jewelry when I was younger, and now I play with my own (this is mostly during the sermon though). There will be a lot of reading where the congregation actually all reads together. This is part of what makes it seem to pass quickly, since you aren't really being "preached to" the whole time. You should think about whether you want to participate in that. There's nothing wrong with what is being said, but whenever I go to a church and read with the congregation, I always feel a little strange. You might be the same way. If you choose not to read, it will probably be noticed (though surely understandable), so perhaps you should ask your boyfriend what he thinks.

During the service there will probably be a lot of opportunity for reflection on the past year and thinking about changes that the congregants might make in the coming year. I actually rather enjoy that part, since I rarely take time to reflect. I think someone will sound the shofar (show-far), which is basically like a big horn. It’s fun to secretly count how long the long blast lasts. There will probably be a lot of singing by the choir. Your boyfriend and/or his family might join in either consciously or unconsciously.

You should go to temple and dress nicely. I usually wear a suit, but on Rosh Hashanah I tend to one that is a little more fun or funky. It will probably be cold, so you may want to bring something to cover your shoulders. That's basically why I wear a suit instead of a skirt and top.

I had a former roommate who was thinking of converting and bought the Dummies Guide to Judaism. I don't know if she found it valuable or not though. If you are seriously considering it, you should learn more and set up some appointments with a rabbi. Maybe you're getting hostility because you're basically ignorant yet still saying you want to embrace the religion you know very little about. I don't mean that in a mean way. If you put a lot of effort into learning more and showing a serious intent, perhaps you'd get less hostility. Your post is a good start, btw. This page seems to be useful at a first glance, but I'm sure there are many many more.

Good luck!

p.s. Have you met his family yet? If they already like you, I see no reason for the weekend to go poorly.
posted by ml98tu at 9:01 AM on September 18, 2006

Thanks for all the answers so far! I have looked into Rosh Hashanah (and conversion), and so mostly I'm wondering if there's something I've missed, or something he has forgotten to tell me, that I should know.

As for this, What sort of hostility towards conversion are you encountering? From Jews or non-Jews? Your family?

So far, the hostility I have picked up on is from my family (they don't want their grandkids not to celebrate christmas/easter & also, they giving up Catholicism was a major event in their lives/is a big part of their identity, and they worry about me or my kids being too involved with a religion); and friends/acquaintances (not Jewish), who have told me that they think I'm giving up too much of myself by converting (and have mentioned people whispering behind the backs of other people who have converted for marriage); and one Jewish friend who has made lots of comments about how hard it is to find a nice, Jewish guy (and so I think she may think I should leave him for a nice, Jewish girl - but that's just me hypothesizing).

And yes, I've met his family several times - they're lovely and welcoming, and although they haven't said so to me, I'm sure they're not thrilled that I'm not Jewish.
posted by n'muakolo at 10:23 AM on September 18, 2006

So far, the hostility I have picked up on is from my family (they don't want their grandkids not to celebrate christmas/easter & also, they giving up Catholicism was a major event in their lives/is a big part of their identity, and they worry about me or my kids being too involved with a religion

Unfortunately, this is something that may only get worse once you actually decide to get married. Once you decide to get married, you will need to make it clear that you are making these choices because you want to, and whether or not your family agrees with them, they should respect them. Talking to a Rabbi or a counsellor may help with your own emotional turmoil - it can be very very painful to have one's own parents questioning heartfelt choices. Don't get dragged into arguments justifying your decision. Talk with your fiance (once it comes to that) about how you want to handle it together.

Not wanting to jump the gun on considering the kids thing, you could discuss with him whether you'd both be comfortable visiting your family for Christmas (assuming your regular fairly secular American Christmas), as a way of keeping a connection. There are lots of options - only you and your future husband can figure out what will work for you.

Here are two books by Anita Diamant that you might find useful:
Choosing a Jewish Life for those considering conversion.

Living a Jewish Life for considering how to build a Jewish life with your fiance.

You might also look into the
Union for Reform Judaism, which runs educational programs for new couples, outreach to those who have decided to convert, and those raising Jewish children.
posted by canine epigram at 10:38 AM on September 18, 2006

Oops. That last link should be Union for Reform Judaism.

Realize that for your family, it's a potential loss that will evoke a lot of emotion. A friend of mine who converted to Judaism told me that even her mother, who had vowed never to set foot in a church again, felt threatened by her daughter's break with her religious heritage. Reassure them that you're the same person you were.
posted by canine epigram at 10:42 AM on September 18, 2006

You couldn't have sincerely believed the tennants of catholicism before, or what you're doing would damn you to eternal hellfire and such - so you have a history of going through the motions of religious observance without genuine faith. I have a feeling people resent your "conversion" because it's hard to take your belief as genuine, considering the circumstances.
posted by phrontist at 11:02 AM on September 18, 2006

I'd be willing to wager a bet that your friend is pissed that you're shrinking the pool of available candidates for her and other "nice, Jewish girls."

Your friends and family will hopefully get over it with time, and politely but firmly stating that your decision on religion is not open for dicussion with them may or may not help. Religion is pretty touchy for most people, but perhaps a conversation about how your parent's family reacted when they pulled out of the Catholic church may help them avoid repeating whatever they faced years ago. Sounds like they're being a touch hypocritical.

Some of the most observant people I knew from temple were those that converted for marriages. Of course, there were others that it didn't quite work out for as you might expect (i.e. converted for marriage, converted back after the divorce). If you're doing it because you can identify with the religion, feel comfortable, blah blah and not just because your future spouse is Jewish, then you have a leg to stand on. Where I came from, we whispered if it was patently obvious that you didn't really *care* about Judiasm or you did the half and half thing even after you converted. If you converted for your spouse and yourself, and it was evident that you actually believed in/were into Judiasm, well then it didn't really matter what you were beforehand.

The people that converted and were too flexible with their parents (basically trying to avoid confrontation by not explicitly saying that this is their new religion and the kids will not be receiving Christmas presents), well, they were the ones that were STILL complaining about their family and friends 20 years later. The people that were explicit and final in their decisions found that eventually, everyone got over it, since that's just how it was going to be.

I hope this makes sense, I am speaking of reform couples with a converted spouse (usually female if it makes any difference or makes you feel better).
posted by ml98tu at 11:08 AM on September 18, 2006

I'd like to clarify... I believe it's entirely possible you did convert because of a genunine interest in Judiasm, but it's easy to be cyncial from their standpoint.
posted by phrontist at 12:04 PM on September 18, 2006

Depending on the prayer book used, it may flip pages right to left, rather than left to right, since Hebrew reads right to left. This means that the front cover is where the back cover is on a book that is all in English.
posted by QIbHom at 12:17 PM on September 18, 2006

You couldn't have sincerely believed the tennants of catholicism before,... so you have a history of going through the motions of religious observance without genuine faith.

Absolutely true. I don't believe the tennants of Catholicism, and although we've never gone to church, we do celebrate Christmas/Easter at home, and do go to church for weddings and funerals. But so far the scepticism I've experienced hasn't been from people bothered that I might convert and not believe in Judaism - although I'm sure there's that too - it's been the people bothered that I'm giving up my heritage, my family's connection to Catholicism, I suppose.
posted by n'muakolo at 12:19 PM on September 18, 2006

Phrontist, I think you're off-base.

If I'm reading her post right (there's a missing word in the relevant sentence in her second post) that her family has themselves fallen away from being active Catholics - she was, after all, raised agnostic. So if she was never truly part of the faith growing up.

And given that the objections are coming from her family, they'd hardly be in a position to criticize for religious reasons. Rather, from what she's written, it seems their concern is grounded in more pragmatic cultural concerns - no longer celebrating even a nominally secular Christmas, and worry that she's going to go all super-religious on them.
posted by canine epigram at 12:20 PM on September 18, 2006

Reform is often very informal, religiously speaking. Nice clothes will be a plus (people dress up no matter which denomination you belong to).

If you're boyfriend's family is fasting on Yom Kippur and you want to make a good impression think about fasting as well (unless you have any medical problems that would suggest you don't). This holds only if your boyfriend is fasting and you want to "suggest" you are serious about him and his religion.

My future wife, who was not Jewish, tried to impress me during Purim by making latkes (potato pancakes) with curry. At that point it didn't matter that latkes are a Hannukah dish (and that curry latkes haven't been served since the dispora forced Jews to migrate to India -g). Her attempt was endearing and after 13 years I still kid her about it.

Bottom line: relax and soak it all in. Take your cues from your boyfriend.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 2:29 PM on September 18, 2006

Curry latkes, yum! Good idea.

One thing to keep you interested during the service is to do some comparative religion.. what are the themes of the service and the structure? Sometimes a kick ass choir is involved so that's always good, Rosh Hashanah is the Big Show for such a choir. People- and clothes-watching is on everybody's Rosh Hashana to-do list, so go right ahead. :)

Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a ten-day period when Jews reassess their ethical and moral behaviour during the year, which culminates on the fasting day, Yom Kippur, when God passes judgement. There are a great many services for Rosh Hashanah, but many of them have a lot of interesting content relating to this theme.

Have fun! There will be a tasty spread afterwards, and probably some good chow back at home, too.
posted by By The Grace of God at 2:40 PM on September 18, 2006

If it's anything like my conservative synagogue was growing up, the four(+) hours go by pretty fast. For a lot of people the high holidays are an "event" - one of a couple of times all year that the entire congregation is in one place at one time. So people sit with/near friends and gossip and people-watch. Inappropriate? Sorta. But we are social creatures after all.

Biggest highlight? Blowing the shofar. Always entranced me as a kid, and still as an adult (this doesn't apply if the holiday falls on shabbat, and I don't recall if it does this year).
posted by saladpants at 4:29 PM on September 18, 2006

The first day of Rosh Hashannah is indeed on "shabbat" (Saturday, the Jewish sabbath) this year, so it's possible that you won't hear the shofar blown. On the other hand, Reform is, by definition, more flexible than other branches of Judaism, so you might hear it.

Anyway, my biggest piece of advice:

Don't worry too much!

For one thing, it sounds like you're very well-informed. For another, it's obvious from everything you've said that you have a very respectful attitude, and that you genuinely care about your boyfriend's family's feelings. If it's obvious to a stranger on the Internet, it ought to be obvious to his family in person.

Also, in a Reform service, it should usually be very clear what you're supposed to do. It'll be mostly in English, and the rabbi will usually indicate (verbally or with a gesture) when everybody is supposed to stand up. He'll also probably call out page numbers pretty regularly, for anybody who has lost their place in the prayerbook (or wandered in an hour or two late, which happens a lot.) Also, any Hebrew part of the service is likely to be transliterated-- IE, spelled out in English letters so you know how to pronounce it. Participate in any prayers you're comfortable participating in, and don't participate in anything you don't want to participate in (or can't pronounce). As long as you stand up when everybody else does (which is a sign of respect, rather than religious belief), I doubt anybody will mind either way.

I can think of only two even slightly tricky parts.

The first is what saladpoints said about the social nature of the service. Some people think it's fine to talk loudly throughout the service. Others find that rude and distracting. If somebody strikes up a conversation with you, they might think you're rude if you don't talk back--but the person sitting in front of you might think you're rude if you DO talk. In practice, the only people likely to talk to you during a service are people who already know you, which in this case will be your boyfriend and his family--so if they talk to you, you can just follow their lead (although , out of courtesy to those who prefer things quiet, you might want to keep your voice as low as you can, even if the other person is speaking loudly.)

The second tricky part is that everybody stands up for the "amidah"--the silent prayer--and then people sit down when they finish it. So, you might notice that some people are sitting down and others are continuing to stand, and you might worry that, whichever one you're doing, it's wrong. But, actually, either way is right. So, again, don't worry! You can always just follow your boyfriend's lead if you have any doubts.

All in all, Reform services are pretty easy to follow, and, honestly, I doubt there's much you can do at them to change your BF's family's opinion either way. OK, if you show up in a Nazi uniform, you'll make a bad impression. And if the building catches fire and you singlehandedly carry your boyfriend's parents to safety, you'll make a good impression. But for anything in between, I suspect the family will just conclude whatever they've already concluded about you. If they like you, they'll appreciate your respectful intentions even in the unlikely event you make some huge gaffe. And if they don't like you, they'll find something to criticize, even if you do everything perfectly. That's human nature, alas.

Shana tova!
posted by yankeefog at 2:02 AM on September 21, 2006

I hope you had a good experience. Yom Kippur might be harder - more serious subjects, and everyone cranky from lack of food.

One thing to consider on the issue of conversion: you are giving up a heritage, but you are also gaining one. One which I consider wonderful (and hope you will too). And you would be strengthening that heritage by joining it, instead of weakening it by taking a Jew and your potential children away from it.
posted by teaperson at 12:32 PM on September 26, 2006

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