Life & Culture

Hear the shofar, keep the rules

Zelda celebrates a socially-distanced Rosh Hashanah - and finds herself strangely moved


THis year, for most of us, Rosh Hashanah was surely very different: No packed gatherings of the tribe in synagogues for services; no erev Rosh Hashanah feasts for extended family and friends; no shaking hands in shul; no kisses or hugs outside our own households.

For us, usually, there would be a lovely flurry of emails in advance of the big family dinner — guests offering to make a side-dish or dessert, hosts trying to dampen down excessive enthusiasm for bringing honey cake: “No, no really — please, please don’t bring honey cake. We’re honestly fine for honey cake. We definitely don’t need any more.” Where is it all coming from? Are elves baking extra during the night?

The nature of honey cake is that there is always too much of it. In previous years, at any moment, there will be some, covered, on a fancy plate (left over from the last set of guests), one in the freezer (for the next set), plus a “spare” one in the bread-bin. A foil-wrapped partial honey cake lies in wait on the hall table, ready to foist on anyone foolish enough to cross the threshold at this time of year. I’ve been known to chase The Husband down the front path, begging him to take some to work while he tries to flee unencumbered by a foil package.

This year, we scale back our usual plans to a modest tea in the garden with my brother-in-law’s family. But, together, that brings the total to seven, making it —despite the lack of Class A drugs, our offerings being limited to bagels and bridge rolls — illegal. My brother-in-law and his wife offer a revolving-door policy: one in, one out. He comes for the first half of the tea, then, when she appears at our garden gate, he leaves and she joins us instead. This is great, though she flatly refuses to eat any honey cake or to take some away, even though, as we know, the 614th mitzvah is, when leaving a Jewish household, thou shalt take a foil package of cake or a tub of potato salad.

Rosh Hashanah morning, and we join our shul service online via Zoom. When I log on, I select “gallery view” — this shows you all the participating households as row after row of screens in miniature. It’s lovely to see so many familiar faces, though you do have to remember that you are visible: one woman seems to be looking at her phone for most of the service; a man wearing a tallit joins in while next to him a bored teenager swipes at his phone. Adjust the angle if necessary: in one room, I see only the very top of a person’s head. In another, just the ceiling lamp.

As I look at the gallery view —each household separate, yet connected by old and new — by new technology and by the ancient ties of religion, history, identity, race, culture, and tradition — it makes me think of the diaspora. Here we are, spaced out yet joined by our Judaism, not just observant Jews and semi-observant Jews but all who identify as Jewish, despite lack of faith or a fondness for fried calamari. Delicatessen Jews who are only in it for the haimishe cucumbers. Secular Jews who enjoy arguing about religion as much as the most ardent yeshivah-bocher. Agnostic Jews who don’t really believe in God but better not say it out loud because, you know, He might be listening. Jews across the world. Jews-in-progress like me. Is that why I find it so unexpectedly moving?

Then we reach the part of the service where the shofar will be blown. The rabbi gives the calls — he has an unusually melodic voice and each call is absolutely beautiful: Teki-ah... Shevarim-Teruah...From another household, a woman blows the ram’s horn. As ever, the sound of the shofar is shocking — extraordinary, unique — quite unlike anything else we hear at any other time of the year. It is strange, discordant even, and yet, something that clutches at my heart. Why, when I am not even a believer, does the sound of the shofar bring me close to tears?

We are reminded that “the shofar sounds its warning and calls us to account.” The warning feels especially apt now, in this pandemic, when we have been shaken out of our normal lives and routines and forced to be more aware during all our activities. When I go to the supermarket, I no longer stroll round, idly picking up new products, chatting in the aisle if I bump into a friend. Now, it’s mask on, scoosh of sanitiser at the entrance, zip round at high speed while trying to maintain distance, pay, exit, sanitise again.

So the shofar is a wake-up call, not just to each of us as individuals, to ask ourselves — how can we do better, be better? But also collectively, as families, as communities, what can we do to slow the spread? Now is the time to do what is right, to act in the best interests of all: Wash your hands. Wear a mask in enclosed spaces. Keep your distance.

I wish you well over the fast.

Zelda Leon is half-Jewish by birth then did half a conversion course as an adult (half-measures in all things...) to affirm her Jewish status before a Rabbinical Board. She is a member 
of a Reform synagogue. Zelda Leon 
is a pseudonym


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